It was, to be sure, an example of serendipitous timing. With the Commerce Department reporting on Tuesday that June retail sales were up by 0.6%, more than 600 institutional investors descended upon the Oppenheimer Consumer, Gaming, Lodging & Leisure Conference in Boston to be convinced that the future of retail is -- well, let's just say to be convinced that there is a future. "Retailers and brands cannot be afraid of the word 'recession,'" Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NDP Group said in his keynote address. "Consumers can deal with it if the retailer learns how to address their new mentality." Cohen predicted that consumers will open their wallets for innovative products and ideas -- but not those who are simply hoping to ride out the recession until the economy returns to "normal." "But the new normal will not be what we saw two years ago," Cohen said. "People will go back to shopping more like they did 10 years ago." And on that mixed note, several retailers and consumer goods-makers vied to prove that they were prepared to capture that new, withered consumer dollar. Tupperware ( TUP) CEO Rick Goings, for one, announced that his company has targeted to have at least 25% of sales come from new products launched within the last two years. He added that Tupperware has been attempting to shed its "June Cleaver" persona by shifting the focus from function to design and beauty. "The way we do this is by making Tupperware fashionable in new colors and styles and improving some of our older products," Goings said.
Meanwhile, Urban Outfitters ( URBN), another strong presence at the conference, took pains to convey that it remains committed to driving business through innovative product and experiential shopping, refusing to take part in the pricing war taking place at many apparel chains. Instead, they said that management is training its consumers to buy items they love when they first see it, instead of waiting for a sale; since Urban Outfitters stocks sundry styles of clothing, but not many pieces of each, shoppers know they won't still be there in a few weeks. Urban Outfitters is also open to a "small acquisition," CFO John Kyees said during the conference. In the past year, the company has rolled out two new concepts: Terrain, a garden lifestyle concept, and wholesaler Leifsdottir. But innovation doesn't solely have to mean growth. In fact, as Cohen said, it may be time to stop focusing on volume growth as a way to judge a company and start looking at profit. "What would you rather have, a company that is losing money, but growing, or one that is making money?" he asked. Job cuts and store closures should be viewed as a positive, Cohen says, and the responsible thing to do during the current economic climate. In that vein, Phillips-Van Heusen ( PHV) has already closed its 100-stores Geoffrey Bean concept last year, and announced that it plans to close 150 of its legacy stores over the next three years. In 2008, PVH had 700 stores, and CEO Emanuel Chirico said he wants to take that number down to about 400. "As a whole we are over-retailed, over-restauranted, over-hoteled and over-gamed," Cohen said. "Do we need a mall on every exit of the 405 freeway? Two coffee shops on a corner? It's more than what we need."