Why We Don’t Attend Merchant Conferences like NRF and NRA


Last week someone asked us if we would be attending NRF’s convention in January. I felt a little guilty because this person was obviously unaware of our stance on these events, so our reply was probably a pretty big shocker. NRF’s show is, after all, the show with all the big brand retailers. So why not go?

Before I share our reply, let’s revisit a piece of history that will put our thinking into perspective.

In the year 1000, the average western European was slightly poorer than their counterparts in China and India. By 1900, Western Europe was, on average, five times richer.

Why such the drastic change? Among others, historians argue Western Europe became a “market for ideas.” The Royal Society, a club for leading scientific exchange, was founded in London in 1660. The club’s culture was to exhaustingly question methodologies to arrive at a single version of the truth. In fact, so dogmatic was this practice that its motto was “nullis in verba“, or, “take nobody’s word for it.”

No member or idea was above scrutiny; there were no sacred cows. When Leonhard Euler, a mathematician, thought that Isaac Newton had erred, the Royal Society asked a self-taught optician to see who was right.

There were no pretenses that only those concepts ideated above a certain rung were of value: all that mattered was the truth, no matter from where it was derived.

This open dialogue and willingness to search for the ultimate truth enabled innovation to happen faster as any inquisitive mind could contribute to the fact-gathering process. The process and outcomes were shared among Royal Society members, enabling people and governments to benefit from access to the newest and most proven methodologies in science and business.

The problem with brick and mortar verticals is that this sort of open dialogue never takes place. And as a consequence, there’s been relatively zero progress since the concept of retailing was invented.

Industry conferences, places where open, honest dialogue should be fostered, are off-limits to critical thinking. Why?

Follow the money.

Who pays for the conferences? It’s a combination of retailers and their suppliers. There’s no reason to rock the boat and potentially upset any sponsors. As a result, there’s zero push back, and innovative things are not broached at the paralyzing fear of making attendees – particularly the retailer – feel inadequate.

The net result is a massive fart-sniffing jamboree. There’s no one that captures this sentiment better than the good folks at South Park

So to make a long story short, we don’t attend retail conferences because attendees are cocooned in their bubble of self-preservation. Leadership doesn’t want to improve at the risk of looking ignorant, and outside ideas are thus dismissed as pure heresy… even if they’ve been proven elsewhere for decades.

Sure, innovators might be lured into spending money on expo hall booths, but executives aren’t walking the floor looking for reasons to upset the status quo; a status quo where they get paid incredibly well for underserving their shareholders and ignoring fiduciary responsibilities. Executives are instead neatly tucked away in backroom meetings, glad-handing each other over drinks and golf.

Now don’t get me wrong: it’s anyone’s prerogative to live in a fantasy land where they’re king. But this behavior should not be forbidden if there is even a single external shareholder, including employees who are dependent on decision making from leadership.

When conference organizers can admit they’re fomenting an industry-wide problem, then we’ll pay closer attention.

Until then, where are the people actively searching for the honest truth?