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John Ryan

NRF 2022: An Englishman in New York

The annual conference took place Jan. 16-18 in The Big Apple

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Courtesy of National Retail Federation/Jason Dixson Photography

SATURDAY, MY FIRST night and first stop in New York to attend NRF’s “Big Show,” I went to check out the (relatively) new JD Sports in Times Square. Seeing the Brit flag flying reassured me that some U.K. retailers can still make it in The Big Apple. The flagship is good, and the digital overload, with screens at almost every turn, make the visit a phygital (a word that should be consigned to the bin, truth be told) experience of the kind that we are told about, but all too often fail to encounter.

Then, next morning, it was off to the Javits Center where NRF’s annual “Big Show” was cranking up. Covid has taken its toll on the number of “old world” visitors showing up, and there were very few familiar faces. The same is true of exhibitors, but there’s still plenty to look at.

And here the great divide begins. For the most part it’s a matter of deciphering American English and working out what you are being told in terms that make some kind of sense. To a somewhat conservative (with a small “c”) Englishman confronted by the supreme self-confidence of a sales rep determined to tell you that the “platform” a company has developed will solve all of the problems known to the modern retailer, this can be daunting.

Just a few questions, however, tend to reveal the awkward truth that lies at the heart of retail tech shows – that of solutions in search of problems that may, or may not, exist. Of course, there is a lot of novelty, and as a hapless European wandering the aisles, the task is a matter of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Twas ever so perhaps, but when funds are limited and the scale of investment to implement some of the things on show being very substantial, a critical eye is a near indispensable asset. In some ways, being non-American can actually be an advantage as if something is not readily explained in simple terms, then there is a very real possibility that it’s not worthy of consideration.

Back in the American Airlines lounge and Heathrow-bound, the obvious question is: Was it all worth it? The answer is, as it should be, a resounding yes. Whether it’s screens you don’t actually have to touch in order to interact with them or garment security tags that are also, in effect, checkouts, there’s always something you won’t know about. And if you don’t go, you don’t know.

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John Ryan is a journalist covering the retail sector, a role he has fulfilled for more than a decade. As well as being the European Editor of VMSD magazine, he writes for a broad range of publications in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany with a focus on in-store marketing, display and layout, as well as the business of store architecture and design. In a previous life, he was a buyer for C&A, based in London and then Düsseldorf, Germany. He lives and works in London.

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