Updated Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 09:46 AM
NEW YORK — Amazon.com founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, long the boogeyman of Big Retail, stood before a roomful of brick-and-mortar merchants Monday and exuded modesty.
Bezos, in receiving the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) top annual Gold Award, recalled fulfilling orders himself from a Chevrolet Blazer during Amazon’s startup phase 18 years ago.
“I did not expect to happen what actually happened,” Bezos said, crediting an “incredible, planetary alignment” of luck and good timing.
Amazon’s dominance online looms large as something to both admire and fear at the NRF’s 102nd annual convention in Manhattan, where about 27,000 industry players are gathered through Tuesday at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
How to compete in an era of same-day delivery of Internet orders and “showrooming” — the term for when shoppers use stores to try out products and then buy them cheaper online from rival retailers — has emerged as a hot topic, with Seattle-based Amazon as the common denominator.
Amazon, the world’s largest Internet retailer, offers a limited same-day delivery option in 10 U.S. markets, including New York and Seattle, and encourages customers to comparison shop through its mobile price-check app.
Acknowledging widespread fear of Amazon, Jill Puleri, vice president and global leader for retail at IBM, told an NRF audience Sunday that Amazon apparently had become the industry’s boogeyman, adding, “It’s waking all of us up.”
Bezos was introduced at Monday’s awards ceremony by Brooks Brothers CEO Claudio Del Vecchio, who praised him for making a fledgling e-commerce industry mainstream in the mid-1990s. A short biographical video of Bezos, 49, seemed to drive home the point of how much the retailing world had changed since then.
Undoubtedly, few could have predicted before Amazon that someone like Bezos — a dual major in electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton — would come to rule the retail world.
“There are a bunch of people back in Seattle and around the world working their tails off on behalf of customers,” he said before an audience of several thousand. “It’s really great to get this award from this group.”
It was a rare public appearance for Bezos, who lately has limited himself to Kindle product launches. An Amazon spokesman said he was unavailable for additional comment.
Some attendees privately mentioned that the NRF’s recognition of Bezos — a fierce rival of the brick-and-mortar world — was a controversial choice aimed at generating buzz. The NRF said selecting Bezos was a no-brainier, given that the award is meant to honor retailers who’ve shown creative genius and inspirational leadership.
Social-media and technology expert Erik Qualman, author of “Socialnomics,” was asked during a keynote presentation what he thought about Amazon’s ongoing experiment with same-day delivery, a potential threat to the instant gratification offered by stores.
Qualman said he expects Amazon’s same-day service to expand as the company builds new distribution centers near major urban hubs and takes on additional sales-tax-collection requirements. He also speculated that Amazon will open up its warehouses to customers — as Home Depot once did — and follow Apple’s example in using mobile apps to enable self checkout.
“When Home Depot started, they really just opened up a warehouse, and from there they came out with the orange aprons and more one-on-one relationships with customers,” Qualman said in an interview. “What Amazon does better than anyone is test and adjust from there.”
For traditional retailers, it could be yet another thing to worry about.
Schultz urges retailers to get politically involved
Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz urged retailers Monday to jump into the political fray and help bring an end to gridlock in Congress.
Schultz, in an impassioned speech at the National Retail Federation’s convention in New York, said political “dysfunction” poses the biggest threat to businesses.
Schultz did not prescribe any specific policy changes but instead spoke broadly about the need for what he called authentic leadership.
After a holiday-sales season rife with uncertainty over the fiscal cliff, retailers can expect more of the same as Congress and the White House turn their attention to the federal budget deficit, he said.
Schultz pointed out that Starbucks recently asked employees to write the words “come together” on coffee cups in the D.C. area.
Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos