Some observations from the National Retail Federation (NRF) annual conference (a/k/a “The Big Show”) in New York, which ran this week:

– Attendance was noticeably down. I have attended this event for 21 consecutive years, in good markets and bad, and when I did not have to wait in line for my badge on Monday morning, I knew it was going to be light. No one ever knows what actual attendance is at trade shows, as the official releases do a good job of blending exhibitor attendees numbers with paid delegates, obscuring the facts to their advantage. The buzz on the floor was that attendance was off 40%, and that there were in excess of 60 exhibitor no-shows.

– Despite the light traffic, it was apparent that the folks who attended did so with a sense of mission. I spoke with many journalists who reported that the vendor community had noted a higher quality of interaction, offsetting the lack of quantity. While that may sound like spin to some, based upon my own interactions, I would argue there is truth to the assertion of higher quality.

– Digital signage was well-represented on the exhibit hall floor, with several dedicated companies from the industry represented, including of course RDM. There were also a number of traditional retail technology companies throwing out digital signage buzzwords to attract attention. It won’t be long until we make it to the portfolio map on the retail CIO’s wall at the current pace of growth in awareness.

– You can see from this AdAge web video, a number of vendors seem to like terms like “digital signage” and “on demand content” instead of the more descriptive terms “kiosk” and “interactive application”. While on one hand, our quest for semantic resolution is in serious peril, we can take solace in the fact that the words that describe the business of serving digital media over a network are all the rage.

– While there was certainly a sense of gloom at the conference, there were some fairly interesting new products and technologies on display. My take is that there will be a certain level of replacement cycle buying out there, as well as some previously-budgeted strategic application purchases as well. Historically, retailers have continued to invest in down economies. Our requirement as an industry is to elevate the discussion past buzz words and to a strategic level. I had many great conversations about what is next, and I can report that retailers “get it”. Concepts like convergence and integration have their place, but in the end, the value proposition of networked digital signage has to include brand building, customer engagement and corporate advancement.