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Tom Hickman on the First In-Person Nationwide PrimeTime in 18 Months

Nationwide PrimeTime President and CMA Tom Hickman

Founded in 1971, Nationwide Marketing Group (NMG) celebrated its 50th anniversary at its most recent PrimeTime. Held in Nashville in August, it was the first-in person iteration of the event since February 2020. Some 2,000 Nationwide members and manufacturers descended upon the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center for three-and-a-half days of networking, learning, buying, product-discovery, and more. We sat down with NMG President and Chief Member Advocate Tom Hickman during the show for his perspective on the return to live in-person events, the retail rollercoaster of the past 18 months, Nationwide’s growth during the pandemic, and the coolest trends at the show. Here’s the full interview.

This is the third day of Nationwide’s first in-person PrimeTime since February 2020. How’s it going so far?

Tom Hickman: We’re thrilled with it. We have a really engaged base, so we knew we would get the members because they haven’t seen each other for 18 months, some 580-something days, and there’s just a huge network effect here that happens at these events. It’s not just solving supply-chain problems; it’s not just price and product procurement. And that’s probably my biggest takeaway: that this show is very powerful for the human connection. I think we underestimated the power of the network and the people part of this. We have almost 1,000 retailers out here who have left their stores at the busiest times of their lives, to come and meet with us here during one of the most challenging environments for live events. Overall, there are some 3,000 or so attendees, not just the retailers themselves, but also our vendor partners. We’re thrilled with the number of folks here.

We’re also thrilled with the content. We had a shopper journey panel at the opening keynote with some top CMOs from some of our largest global manufacturers who shared what’s going on in the changing consumer and shopper journey. Then we had a great kickoff speaker who made us all laugh for the first time in a while. There hasn’t been a lot of laughing going on until now, so the engagement has been incredible.

And then, of course, there is still the base part of the business — the buying and the cashbacks — that’s all going on and we’ll get those numbers later, but we feel really good right now.

Tell us more about the networking that happens at an in-person PrimeTime event.

TM: We probably have 40 different networking events at any given time — we have retailer-led panels on what they’ve learned in the pandemic, Women in Nationwide (WIN) networking panels, diversity panels, and the shopper journey panel, to name just a few. There are other meetings and networking events for young leaders, Whirlpool exclusive dealers, an outdoor counsel. There’s networking going on all day, and that’s not even counting the more than 100 Learning Academy sessions, where there’s a lot of back and forth and education going on, but it’s based on networking.

Your last in-person PrimeTime took place right before everything shut down. What were the main topics and concerns then compared to this week’s Summer 2021 show?

TH: Well, I remember vividly we were at our show and we had just started hearing from manufacturers about a coronavirus and how it might cause some hiccups in the supply chain for those that were sourcing product from China, but most people expected it to be an eight-to-10-week hiccup. We closed our offices less than 30 days after those conversations, and probably 60 days later, 1,200 of our retailers were mandated to shut their doors. So it escalated quickly, but right before, at the show itself, we were feeling fantastic.

More specifically, at the February 2020 show in Houston, there was a lot of conversation around the election, because it was an election year. There was also a lot of conversation around growth, because we had very low interest rates and the housing market was on fire. And so, as they say, as housing goes, our business goes, so we had these great expectations and plans, all while keeping an eye on the election, because there’s always a little turmoil around that. We were also talking about a market that was probably going to be up three to seven percent, which in appliances had been the historical average. We were talking about how to continue to grow business, how to grow faster than the market, and how to compete against big box. We were talking about how we could grow 10 percent, which would be great since the industry was growing at three percent.

And then suddenly, we went to how do we keep everyone open, how long will this pandemic last, how do I get funding so my business can stay open? Today we’re up 38 percent, which is almost 30 percent over 2019, and the conversation is around I have more customers than I know what to do with, so how do I get product, when’s the supply chain going to get fixed, and how do I maximize the opportunity?

So we’ve seen these three inflection points over the past 18 months. First, it’s going to be good; then, holy crap, something bad happened; and now it’s like, holy cow, we’re trying to hang onto the nose of the cone. It’s been a really interesting kind of roller coaster and I’ve seen more change in 18 months than I’ve seen in 18 years. You kind of have to have your head on a swivel.

How did Nationwide itself address all these changes, and what did it learn and implement that will stick around?

TH: We have a saying around here: We solve retail problems right. The retail problem now is an always-changing landscape, and digital is going to be a long-term, constantly evolving problem. We have a team of 200 people that work on that. Another tough problem right now is the human asset — finding people in this competitive landscape for pay and benefits. Some of our folks can’t offer insurance to their employees, so we went out and found Lockton, an insurance company that offers an affordable rate. This lets retailers compete for human assets in the market.

Before COVID, we did not have much experience in navigating legislation and lobbying governments on the behalf of retailers. We didn’t have anyone who could read all 1,200 pages of the CARES Act to fully assess the implications for retailers. So we built that skill. We went out and found some folks in D.C. that did just that and brought them on staff. I hope we don’t ever have to lobby state governors to allow our retailers to open their stores and to look at old, antiquated language and laws that say that refrigerators aren’t essential, but now we have that capability. We also rallied our troops and created a COVID response team. That team sourced protective equipment for our members because that was also tough to find, and where were they going to get it otherwise? We’re not perfect by any means, but I think we’re pretty good at identifying a problem, going and finding experience or expertise in that area, and then bringing it into the company to help solve the problem.

How has Nationwide addressed inventory issues for its members?

TH: Communication is key, so our merchant teams inside our organization work with the Whirlpools, the GEs, the Bekos, the Serta Simmons, the Samsungs. They used to meet once a month, go over the business, and talk about what we needed. Now they meet weekly and the first thing we talk about is supply chain — how are the factories running, what’s the capacity, what can we tell our members, and when do you think you’ll have recovery?

We have 5,000 retailers and we’re significant partners to these folks. Having a seat at the table of what the allocation supply chain looks like, and having visibility into that, is really important right now. Our members can kind of deal with anything as long as they know, so our job is to give them a little bit of a look into when it’s going to get better — or when it’s not going to get better — and what it’s going to look like.  That’s a big part of what we’re doing now. The fact of the matter is that there’s just way more demand than there is supply, and it’s going to be that way for a little bit of time.

The other part of that visibility is leaning on the skill of the group to make sure we get our fair or unfair share of that allocation of how much is being built. We remind those partners how important this channel is, because let’s face it, in the pandemic, some big boxes shut down. Plenty of folks had refrigerators or washing machines break down during this time and without the independent channel, they would not have had new units delivered. So we just have to gently remind our partners that we were there for them, and that we need as much product as we can get.

The other area is PriMetrix, our suite of data and analytics tools that gives retailers options on things that they’re used to buying that aren’t available. We know what’s selling and where, and we’re sharing that with our members through these tools to help them make better decisions on what to buy, when to buy it, what’s selling, what’s not selling, what to put on their floors and, more importantly, what to put online.

So, what’s selling these days?

TM: There’s a lot of technology that’s been pushed into appliances that you probably wouldn’t have seen before. So in addition to craft ice maker features for your bourbon, there’s also a lot of innovation around clean and healthy. I’ve seen more innovation out of the bedding business in the last two years than we’ve seen in 25 years: sleep or wellness as a product instead of, say, different types of mattresses — this one’s firm, this one’s stiff, this one’s cooling. I get up every morning and know how many hours of good sleep I’ve had because of my sleep tracker app.  So we’re seeing a lot of technology in places where we wouldn’t normally see it. Even cooking and grilling outside — Wi-Fi-based cooking that walks you through the recipe and keeps track of the temperature.

Why is financing and payment undergoing so much innovation lately?

TM: There are just more ways to pay today. Consumer finance has been a part of the business forever; “12 months–no interest” has been an incredible retail activation driver for years. But today it’s about safety, security, and speed. Increasingly, people don’t want to take their credit cards out, to have their information stored somewhere, or to touch PIN keypads or cash. We have to be able to allow folks to pay in different and creative ways, and especially non-touchpoint ways. Today’s buzzword is frictionless, and it’s just about speed and ease. Fewer and fewer people want to have to provide a credit card when they shop at a store or get out of a taxi. That’s why Uber is so popular.

Privacy and security are so important today, so in addition to teaming up with PayPal to integrate its eCommerce payment platform with our Site On Time and Retailer Web Services platforms, we partnered with Wells Fargo to do contactless applications. So, if someone’s in the store and they want to buy a sofa, and they need to get a credit line instead of giving their information to a salesperson and then are kind of wondering what’s going to happen with that form — are they going to shred it, are they going to throw it away, is somebody going to pick it up — they do it all through their own phone. No one else ever touches their phone, they get automatically approved with their credit line, the store gets notified immediately, and they can proceed with their transaction.

Considering the various COVID variants out there, do you think there will be more PrimeTime and other live in-person events in the next six to 12 months?

TH: We’re planning to go to Phoenix in February of next year for PrimeTime. I think we’ll get an FDA approval here on this vaccine, and I think that’s going to change the landscape a little bit. I suspect that it’ll be tough to travel or do just about anything in the United States or abroad without proof of vaccination; that’s just my opinion, one guy’s version. So I think if we have that and people feel safe, we’ll have plenty of live events. CES is right around the corner. We’re scheduled for February, so have a little bit of time, but we also have a virtual muscle if we need to do it that way and do it right. We’ve done two incredibly proficient virtual shows. But what I’ll tell you is that as good as those were, people want to see each other. We, as humans, we’re pack animals. We’re groups, and we’re people who are happy when we see other people.