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Videos, Bad News, Advice at Retailers Convention With AM-Economy, Bjt

January 14, 1992

NEW YORK (AP) _ For a moment, you couldn’t tell if it was a retailers’ convention or MTV as the lights dimmed and Billy Joel’s ″We Didn’t Start the Fire″ played on the screen.

The rock song, which chronicles world events since the late 1940s, proved a perfect vehicle to illustrate to storeowners Tuesday how American society and values have changed - and how the retail business must cope.

″As long as the fire is blazing - and we’re all in it now - that’s all that matters,″ said Ray Gaulke, executive vice president of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau Inc., at a seminar on marketing.

Gaulke gave retailers a message sounded repeatedly at the National Retail Federation convention being staged in New York this week: The recession has left consumers with less money, but even when the economy improves, Americans won’t return to the free-spending ways of the 1980s.

The bleak forecasts were supported by a government report and a new poll released Tuesday.

The Commerce Department said total retail sales fell 0.4 percent in December, limiting their advance in 1991 to 0.7 percent, the smallest in 30 years. Meanwhile, an ABC News-Money magazine poll said 75 percent of consumers believe this is a bad time to spend.

Economists at the convention said half the retailers in business at the start of the 1990s would be gone by the end of the decade. And retailers who don’t change their approach now can expect to be among the missing.

Speakers also warned that the disappointing Christmas seasons of 1989-91 are likely to be not an aberration, but a new trend. Gaulke welcomed retailers to what he called ″The New Normalcy.″

But all is not lost, the retailers were told.

Laurel Cutler, a vice chairman at the advertising firm FCB-Leber Katz Partners, told storeowners they have the chance to ″exploit and not just weather the recession.″

The status symbols of the 1980s are giving way to virtue symbols, she said, telling retailers they can flourish by meeting consumer demand for good merchandise at low prices.

Like other speakers at the convention, she cited discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and apparel retailer Gap Inc. as retailers enjoying boom times because they’re giving consumers the merchandise they want at low to moderate prices.

She and other speakers urged retailers to study consumer research, learn what today’s trends are and follow them.

M. William Potts III, chief financial officer of Appleseed’s, a women’s apparel retailer in the Northeast, said he picked up useful economic information.

″We want to target folks that do have disposable income,″ he said.

The convention’s economic and marketing sessions were heavily attended by retailers seeking guidance on adapting to what marketing consultant Carol Farmer called ″The Less Decade.″

″Be responsive and innovative,″ was her advice.

Storeowners also turned to convention exhibitors - consultants, bankers and computer and security system manufacturers selling their services or products - for help.

Credit-card companies, including Visa, MasterCard and Discover, who had booths at the convention, encouraged retailers to accept their cards. Storeowners apparently saw the cards as an easy way to attract more customers, because MasterCard and Discover employees reported they were busy handling inquiries.

Ted Jablonski, a MasterCard representative, called retailers ″surprisingly upbeat.″

Tony Camilletti, an employee of the store design firm Jon Greenberg & Associates Inc., found storeowners at both ends of the spectrum. He described them as either ″banged up and bruised″ or optimistic after having a steady year and good Christmas.

The divergent attitudes were an improvement over the 1990 convention, which Camilletti called ″a real drag.″