As 33,000 retail professionals converge at NRF's Big Show, ominous trends and transformations will confront them. But from the chaos may come answers.

Crowds rush up the stairs at NRF Big Show 2016

As 33,000 retail professionals prepare to descend on New York City for the National Retail Federation’s annual Woodstock of commerce, it’s hard to remember a time when they’ve gathered in the face of more industry chaos and upheaval. Except for maybe last year. That the retail industry is being roiled by a rapid shift to online sales and the fast-twitch changes in consumer habits and preferences isn’t new. And, of course, there is Amazon, which is in a category of disruption all by itself. But retail’s transformation is gaining momentum geometrically, like a boulder rolling downhill. And no retailer wants to get caught under that rock. “Department stores are in a death spiral,” read a portion of a recent headline on Money’s website. This is the post-holiday news that will greet attendees as they pack the Jacob Javits Convention Center for the flagship retail trade show of the year. (Here’s a nifty NRF guide, by the way, courtesy of Retail Dive.) The Big Show draws astronauts, generals, Miss America and, oh yeah, retailers There are highly successful upstarts, like ShopTalk, and shows that skew more toward the digital, like NRF’s own Shop.org. But NRF’s Big Show has been the biggie, a gathering that has attracted ambassadors, astronauts, generals, Miss America and former presidents as speakers. (Hey these things always come with a little show biz.) It’s a show that tackles in-store, online and everything from retail supply chains to HR challenges. And in 2017, the attendees will come together to strategize, commiserate, look for partners, look for jobs, gather intelligence and take the temperature of the industry that many of them love. Given the recent news, it’s fair to say the industry has a fever. No, not all retail is department stores. But the legacy retailers sometimes appear to be playing the role of sentinel chicken for traditional brick-and-mortar in general. The litany of discouraging news seems to come in an unending loop. Department store holiday sales disappointed. Sears is selling its Craftsman line. Macy’s and Sears are closing stores. Macy’s says it will cut 10,000 jobs, NPR reports. Kohl’s stock got hammered, losing 11 percent, after it announced weak holiday sales. Nordstrom is rethinking its strategy after five straight quarters of slipping sales in stores open at least a year. Its chief technology officer has left after nine months on the job and it’s named a chief innovation officer to try to figure out the best way to take advantage of its venerable brick-and-mortar franchise in a digital world. No company better symbolizes the struggle than Macy’s, the store that conjures up images of “Miracle on 34th Street” and vast, elegant shopping emporiums on some of America’s most vibrant downtown streets. Macy's Herald Square flagship store In fact, the store that makes Macy’s recognizable around the world — the massive Herald Square store in Manhattan — sits about a mile from the Javits center, where the retail world will meet to talk about how to charge into the future. You can imagine it will be a bittersweet affair for Terry Lundgren, a member of the NRF board, who will be attending his last Big Show as Macy’s CEO. He announced last summer that after 13 years as chief executive, he’d be stepping down this quarter. Lundgren will take to the NRF stage for a couple of keynotes, but it’s unlikely he will get deep into his company’s woes. What to look for at NRF's Big Show 2017 So what to look for from the more than 500 exhibitors displaying their wares in more than 240,000 square feet of exhibit space and the 300-plus speakers? A few hot topics:

  • If the notion of “customer experience” pushed “omnichannel” aside in 2016, the NRF conversation around customer experience is likely to go deeper and include the strategies and technologies that are needed to create the right infrastructure to build memorable and relevant customer experiences.

  • Plenty will be presented about making the in-store experience compelling enough to keep shoppers coming and to get them to come back. Likely topics to be discussed include everything from creating a place where people want to be and hang out to better using in-store data to provide something closer to an online experience.

  • Along those lines, a number of exhibitors will present systems that allow shoppers to find what they’re looking for in a store and leave without hassling with checkout. That’s different, of course, from leaving without paying.

  • Yes, there will be displays of augmented reality and virtual reality to enhance the shopping experience, along with smart mirrors and other gee-whiz gizmos. It’s early days, but the appeal in certain cases is hard to deny.

  • Boosting the value of store associates is something many have talked about for some time. A number of exhibitors and some presentations will focus on transforming associates into product and inventory experts, aided by technology and mobile devices.

  • Mobile. Yep, it’s not going away and there will be no shortage of demonstrations of, and talks about, how the power of mobile can be better harnessed to drive both in-store and digital sales.

The hot topics might seem to be scattered, but there is a strong underlying theme: Amazon. The retail giant captured 38 percent of online spending during the recent holiday season, a time when the company reported it shipped 1 billion products. The idea of building an exciting in-store experience, of course, is one dramatic way to differentiate from Amazon. Augmented and virtual reality are a reason for consumers to turn to retailers other than Amazon — for now. Smart mirrors and human store associates who can be as helpful as an internet browser or a website’s search box also provide differentiation. And being able to shop in a physical store without dealing with checkout lines? It’s a key feature of Amazon Go, the brick-and-mortar grocery store concept that Amazon rolled out last month. “New normal” is a cliche and probably not accurate for what retail is facing as its practitioners head for New York. This feels a little more like an inflection point, a point in time when retail is being redefined and still rapidly changing. With luck, after a few days at NRF, those who will be overseeing the industry’s re-imagination will have a clearer vision of just what that will look like. Photos by Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.