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  First Thoughts

    Dan Gilmore


    Supply Chain Digest

Jan. 21, 2022

Bookends to the Great Supply Chain Event Disruption? MODEX 2020 to NRF 2022

Can we Ever Return to Something like Normal Events?

This week, I attended the National Retail Federation “Big Show,” held as usual in mid-January at the Javits Center not far from mid-town Manhattan.

I was one of the relatively few who can make that statement. This is a trade show and conference that had a lot of momentum in the years before the pandemic, which was just two months away when it held its last in person event in January 2020.

Gilmore Says....

Despite Omicron still raging, I am boldly calling NRF this week the right-side bookend, after which we return to something like normal supply chain events

What do you say?

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It’s a show that covers the entire spectrum of retail technologies and services, but with a healthy presence of supply chain-related exhibitors and educational sessions.

And for years it was hot, given the need for technologies to support the new omnichannel era. 30,000+ attendees, selling out the space in the very large main floor, and opening a new lower level that is stuffed with booths from vendors biding their time to get into main exhibit area.

That was then. This is now.

NRF 2022 had the bad luck of being held at near the peak of the Omicron virus, with infections in mass numbers, in what appeared to be the epicenter of the outbreak, New York City.

A couple of weeks ago NRF CEO Mathew Shay told the Wall Street Journal show attendance would be about 20,000. A few days later, another source told me they were now expecting 10,000, though an email late last week from the press office indicated 15,000.

Also late last week, a friend said a source from a large NRF exhibitor said the number would be just 5000.

I don’t think attendance was even that high, even counting exhibitor personnel.

Numerous exhibitors pulled out in the last two weeks, including Microsoft, Google, Infor, Blue Yonder, Zebra Technologies, Manhattan Associate, Impinj, and many more. IBM and NCR were among the very few large exhibitors to maintain their booths.

They shouldn’t have bothered.

Large areas of the exhibit floor were empty. NRF tried to reduce the visual impact by placing lots of tables and chairs in the abandoned spaces. I suppose it helped a little.

To say traffic was light would be generous. The main floor was empty of attendees, leaving the exhibitors that did keep their booths (the majority in absolute terms) with little to do but look at their cells phones and do email between a rare prospect stopping by .

I will say that the lower level, where you have mostly smaller and/or newer companies (including the “innovation zone” booths) had something of a pulse the first two days. My theory is that with nearly all of the large exhibitors upstairs staying home, attendees decided they might as well go look at what some interesting small companies are doing.

The show should have been cancelled. But there were tens of millions of dollars at stake, and that after an all- virtual show in 2021 that certainly brought in just a fraction of the normal revenues. I don’t know how deep NRF’s pockets are, but like most such organizations they can’t be that deep.

Now let’s take the wayback machine to early March 2020. MODEX, the large biannual show from MHI (the former Material Handling Institute of America, a trade association with corporate members from hardware, software and services companies) is soon to start in Atlanta.

Just a couple of weeks before everything looked rosy for MODEX, with a record number of almost 1000 exhibitors, and another likely record of more than 30,000 attendees in the face of lots of demand for systems to improve distribution effectiveness.

That, of course, was when the coronavirus was still largely just something happening in China.

Fast forward to the first week of March. The virus is spreading rapidly in northern Italy, though the absolute numbers are still low. Cases and some deaths – primarily at a nursing home in the Seattle area – are reported in the US. Most troubling, a few of the cases involve victims contracting the virus without a clear link to travel to a heavily affected regions of the world or known contact with an infected person – so-called “community infection.”

Dematic, one of the largest and most prominent firms in the materials handling sector, announces it was pulling out of the show.

This even as many exhibitors, including Dematic, already starting to put up their booths, which can take several days for complex displays.

Shortly thereafter, MHI releases a statement saying the show will go on as planned. It notes a number of planned Chinese exhibitors would not be at the show, but in the end “We are proceeding as planned to hold a safe and successful MODEX 2020.”

It went on to say it anticipated 30,000+ attendees, and that it received record registrations still that week.

MHI had to make a call. Dollars had to be part of the calculous. In the end it was on with the show. I am certain that if the event had started just two days later, it would have had to have been cancelled.

I don’t know what the real numbers were, but by experienced estimate, I think something like 30% of the expected 30,000 predicted actually made it. Many, many companies, especially large retailers such as Target and Walmart, had just implemented travel bans.

It was a very odd environment, with few attendees and a bit of fear literally in the air for those registrants that actually did make it.

So MODEX 2020 marked the start – the left bookend, if you will - of the virtual era of supply chain events. Everything was cancelled or virtual for all of 2020 and most of 2021.

CSCMP held its annual conference in person in September, and it had a respectable crowd, though still well down from pre-pandemic levels.

And despite Omicron still raging, I am boldly calling NRF this week the right-side bookend, after which we return to something like normal supply chain events (though all will be forced to have a virtual component).

MODEX 2022 starts March 28. I have it on good authority MHI has hired a firm that specializes in tracking virus spread, and that it is predicting an imminent peak of Omicron followed by a rapid decline, leaving a reasonably healthy environment for a successful show, as we learn to live with COVID in all its forms.

We will know soon enough.

Any reaction to this trade show discussion? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback email link in the box area above.




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