NRF economist sees better days for retailers amid digital reinvention

The man from Cleveland strolled into a Manhattan shop hunting for two items: an overcoat and an overview. The first would shield him from the chill. The second would provide him even more intel on the state of American retail.

Jack Kleinhenz bagged both.

“I love the social interaction of the stores,” says Kleinhenz, chief economist for the National Retail Federation and principal of Kleinhenz & Associates, a financial consulting and wealth management firm based in Ohio. “It’s entertaining for me. Of course, that’s probably because of my job.

“I like to go in and just observe. On that visit, I tried on a coat and talked to some sales associates. I asked them how things are going, what’s new and how they’re doing.”

What he heard: They’re doing better.

Kleinhenz was in New York to attend NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show. The industry’s annual, flagship event drew nearly 40,000 people to the Javits Center in January to see, sample and sell the latest retail goods and gadgetry.

In New York, Transform sat down with Kleinhenz to hear his views on the moods of both the sellers and the shoppers.

TRANSFORM: Heading into 2019, how hungry are consumers to spend their money in the stores and online?

JACK KLEINHENZ: The consumer is in a good place.

Financially, many households are in good shape. The ratio of monthly financial obligations to disposable income is still low, equal to what we saw 30 to 40 years ago, (according to the Federal Reserve Board). I think many people generally feel more secure – as far as their jobs and their balance sheets.

More broadly, we have some tailwinds going into 2019. We’re at near full employment. Wages have been increasing. Lower gas prices put more money into people’s hands to spend. And we’ve had some tax benefits, although it will be interesting to see what happens with tax refunds.

NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz speaks into a microphone.
NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz. (Photo by Jerry Masek)

TRANSFORMNew tech is front and center at NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show. Which of these technologies have the greatest ability to elevate the retail companies that embrace them?

KLEINHENZ: It’s a great question but it’s hard to measure right now. I am seeing some interesting applications, specifically of AI and robotics.

Among the retail startups here that are using these new technologies, I’d say 15 to 20 percent of these firms could potentially be very, very successful over time.

Just look at what they’re doing. They’re making it easier and more cost effective for the retailer – and they’re making it attractive for the consumer.

TRANSFORM: What does it say to you that so many companies are investing in digital reinvention?

KLEINHENZ: That we’re not standing still.

You know, I love this line from (former racing star) Mario Andretti: ‘If everything seems under controlyoure not going fast enough.’And if (standing still) is the case, I think those companies have to move and they have to move fast. They can’t stand on their laurels. They can’t continue to operate as they have been.

TRANSFORM: What predictions about the digital revolution in retail have not come true?

KLEINHENZ: A few years ago, people would say: ‘Well, e-commerce is going to take over.’

What have we seen? We’ve seen a lot of convergence between e-commerce and bricks-and-mortar stores. They’re learning how they can be more effective in attracting consumers by having a store presence.

Retail firms are thinking: ‘No matter where I get sales, no matter what channel I get sales, that’s where I’ve got to go. So I have to do multiple channels.’ You’re not going to lose the consumer’s interest in actually going to a store, picking up an item, seeing and using that item in person.”

TRANSFORM: When you shop, what technologies do you use?

KLEINHENZ: I’m a multi-channel user. I go online and look at specific stores.

For successful e-commerce companies, if they can get you to their website, you become more loyal to them. That’s how they’re going to be successful rather than just having a consumer type a certain product into their browser and then seeing what that browser tells them.

For retailers, it’s all about creating that loyalty and that relationship. For me, I am a loyal customer of a number of retailers. I will shop online. But I also go to the stores. In fact, last weekend, I spent all day Saturday shopping with my wife, looking for an overcoat. And I found a good fit at a good price – a good day.”

NRF Data Shows Thanksgiving Weekend is Primed to Be a Historic One

The Thanksgiving-Black Friday-Cyber Monday weekend is already the biggest retail shopping weekend of the year. But the latest series of research from the National Retail Federation (NRF) shows that the 2017 edition of this holiday shopping extravaganza is shaping up to be a rather historic one.

For starters, according to NRF more than 164 million consumers plan to shop at some point over the weekend—which, for the first time in NRF’s annual pre Black Friday survey, is gauged as any time between Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday.

“This year, we updated our survey to more accurately capture consumer behavior throughout the entire shopping weekend—Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement. “Consumers will benefit from competitive promotions both in stores and online lasting the course of the weekend, allowing them to find the best gifts at the lowest prices.”

Of those who said they plan to shop, 20 percent (32 million) said they would go out on Thanksgiving night. The busiest day, according to NRF, will be Black Friday with 70 percent (115 million) of those surveyed saying they’d be out and about the day after Thanksgiving. (That runs in stark contrast to a pre-Black Friday report from the Consumer Technology Association in which consumers identified Black Friday as the least likely time they’ll shop for electronics.) Another 43 percent (71 million) of consumers said they plan to shop on Saturday with 76 percent of those saying they’d do so specifically to support Small Business Saturday. Another 21 percent (35 million) said they’d shop on Sunday, and 48 percent (78 million) said they’d go online for Cyber Monday deals.

As for the “why” question, NRF found that 66 percent said they would go out during the weekend in search of deals and promotions, while 26 percent said they go out because of the tradition, and another 23 percent said it’s just because it gives them something to do over the weekend. When asked what they enjoy most about shopping during the holidays, 35 percent said it was the family tradition, 23 percent said it was seeing the holiday displays and decorations, and another 18 percent said it was finding that perfect gift for someone.

Riding High into Black Friday

Another recent report from NRF provided more hard evidence that retailers should feel confident heading into this crucial time of year. According to the association’s monthly retail sales report, October saw a 0.1 percent increase in sales over September—a modest figure—but a 4.3 percent year-over-year increase.

“There was broad strength across most sectors, and households clearly have the wherewithal to spend going into the holiday season,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a statement. “The uplift in October payroll and income has generated a healthy pace of retail spending and household debt burdens are historically low. Congressional action on tax reform should help boost confidence, but it is important that lawmakers keep up their momentum and not let details of the legislation get in the way of achieving such a long-sought goal.”

Specific to the electronics and appliance stores segment, NRF reported that sales were up 0.7 percent seasonally adjusted over September, and up 2.1 percent year-over-year.

Dealerscope’s own CE Retail Confidence Index supports the narrative, having seen strong growth over the past two months as the holiday shopping season drew closer.

Rob Stott