Seen and heard at NRF: Retailers eye opportunities in 2023, even amid uncertainty

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It was clear to anyone who walked into the Javits Center in New York City earlier this month for the National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show: Trade shows are back. With tens of thousands in attendance, people were ready to mingle, talk strategy, showcase their products, and sample the latest cutting-edge technology.

Here are just a few highlights from the four-day event.


Celebrating a visionary

Lowe’s Chairman and CEO Marvin Ellison received the Visionary Award at the NRF Foundation Honors ceremony. The award, presented to an outstanding retail industry leader each year, celebrated Ellison’s stewardship to drive positive change within the industry.

Ellison delivered a keynote speech later in the show, where he spoke about his commitment to making the Lowe’s workforce and leadership team more diverse. A retail brand’s leadership, he said, should reflect its customer base.

“We’re trying to create a company that I wish I could’ve worked for when I was coming up the ranks,” Ellison said. 

The brand focuses on what Ellison called “retail fundamentals:”
  • Product selection
  • Supply chain
  • Operational efficiencies
  • Engaging the customer
  • Flexible e-commerce

Key to that, Ellison said, was connecting the digital and physical stores. “Next-day delivery sounds good until you have a busted pipe.” 

New companies share the spotlight

The Consumer Product Showcase and Innovation Lab gave small business the chance to show off their consumer-facing products and new technology for attendees. Most of the companies in the consumer showcase were minority-owned, women-owned, veteran-owned, disability-owned, or LGBTQ-owned, and innovation lab companies represented countries around the world.

The Consumer Product Showcase featured a wide range of companies: from Mr. Tortilla, which makes low-carb chips; to FOLKUS, which sells paper made from stone; to Doggy Bathroom, an indoor litterbox for dogs.

Retailers who attended NRF were invited to vote for their favorite products at the showcase. Cosmetics company Chica Beauty won first place and $15,000; CordBrick, which makes accessories to help consumers organize devices and cords, took second place and $10,000.

Overheard on the show floor:

“Technology is not just for luxury.” -- Gaia Vernagliano of 3D commerce platform Zakeke 

“AI is fading into the background” to become part of everyday business. -- Michelle Bacharach, CEO of retail content engine FindMine 

“We want to put information as close to the customer as possible in the best way” to make it easy for them to shop with us. – Tony Drockton, CEO of luxury handbag retailer Hammitt 

Optimism amid economic headwinds

Economists speaking at an event for press and analysts were split on whether the United States is heading into a recession this year. NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz and Morgan Stanley’s Sarah Wolfe predicted we’ll avoid recession, while KPMG’s Kenneth Kim said his firm foresees a recession coming in the first half of the year.

Despite lingering uncertainty about the economy, though, the economists all saw bright spots for retail. Even as inflation constrains some household budgets, many consumers still seem willing to spend, they said, and credit conditions are favorable. Holiday spending at the end of 2022 was higher than the previous year, setting retailers up for a relatively strong 2023 – especially if inflation eases. 

“Don’t prepare for the downturn. Prepare now for the recovery,” said Ira Kalish, Chief Global Economist at Deloitte, highlighting labor shortages, supply chain challenges, geopolitics, and climate change as elements that will here to stay as part of the long recovery.