The National Retail Federation calls it the Big Show, which sounds a touch self-reverential, but it is big — really big. The annual trade show is a marquee event for those in the business.

And it all takes place on a very big stage: the world of retail gathered in one place, 34,000 strong, careening like pinballs among the nearly 600 exhibitors packed into the five-block-long Javits Center in Manhattan.

Here we are, the day after the circus left town, with a chance to reflect. A few impressions, literally:


The warriors 

It takes a certain steely resolve to get the job done at a massive 4 1/2-day trade show. You’re either selling, learning, hosting, presenting — maybe even buying, though few drive products off the lot at these events. In any case, you’re on. Stress? What stress?


The knowledge that retail … is everyday … everywhere … doesn’t help matters much.

Move fast; try not to break things

It’s frenetic and chaotic. Everybody is in a hurry — and reading or talking on a smartphone. Misnomer. Those computers-called-phones don’t make you smart. They make you walk right in front of people. The phone-call pacers are the worst — pacing in loops and figure eights while yakking on the phone, ensuring that you cannot get past them. It’s a wonder more people don’t leave Javits in full body casts, the victims of terrible collisions due to texting while walking or pacing while talking.


Hardest working organisms on the planet

Ants come to mind. An army of them scurrying about trying to provide — PR folks trying to provide for their clients; sales people trying to provide for their companies and their families; marketers trying to provide grist for the imagination and information for the mind, networkers trying to provide for themselves and their colleagues. And doing it all with only one Starbucks in all of the Javits Center. One Starbucks for 34,000 ants.

Starbucks at Javits

Ready for your close up

There are so many people who want to see people that it can be awfully hard to get close to the action. Below is the BRRRs’ view, as Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren, who’s going through a bit of a rough patch, and American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault talked about the importance of innovation in retail (and the credit card business, which is now called “the payment business,” fyi). They both agreed that it’s very important, as best we could tell.

Sure, it was a little like sitting at home and watching on TV, provided your home has four one-million-square-foot televisions hanging from the ceiling. But sometimes it’s just cool to be in the same room with celebrity CEOs. At least we think we were in the same room.

And a cast of thousands

There is work to be done, even for those who are not center stage. You never know when a Kodak moment will erupt. 

There is no place like home

There are times, even in a crowd of 34,000, that you can feel very much alone. They call it a business trip for a reason. Meeting quotas. Public speaking. Handshaking. Small talk. Sometimes it helps to bring a little buddy from home to snuggle.

Ever lived in a terrarium?

It’s tantalizing — and just a bit frustrating — to have the big, bold city right out there and we’re all in here — looking out.

Empire State

What a glorious world it must be, just beyond the glass.

Everyone who’s anyone

There is the working-like-ants part and the stress of retail everyday, everywhere, but there are perks that come with NRF’s Big Show, too. Perks like hanging with the beautiful people.

Quiet time is at a premium

When the sensory stimulation hits its limit, the nooks and crannies are the places to be. Somewhere to think or maybe get in touch with your inner-pro-bowler. Remember these? Sometimes you just need to find a world where a strike is a good thing. 

t take resourcefulness to find a place to sit and ponder your existence and steel yourself against the reality that everyone is replaceable on some level and that there are some ideas, solutions and products for which, well, their time has come. 

Weinermobile And no Little Oscar in sight. DCIM100GOPRO

All good things, well, all things

These things have their own rhythm: the hype, the mayhem, the socializing. And then things begin to wind down and wear down a bit.

That’s when it’s time to exhale; to consider what you’ve learned — takeaways, trade show people like to call it. Unless by takeaways they mean all the knickknacks, geegaws and schwag they cart home for the kids. Hey kids! Hand sanitizers!

Yes, the show’s over, as they say. But now the real work begins.

Photos by Mike Cassidy

Take a look at the rest of our NRF Big Show coverage regarding AmazonpersonalizationWatsonretail’s future, the measurement mandate and the need to innovate on the BloomReach Blog.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.