Consumer Nation

Retail CEOs Charting Careful Course Into the Holidays

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From the health of the consumer to navigating the choppy, uncertain waters of the second half of the year, there's been a lot to talk about at the 19th annual Goldman Sachs Global Retailing Conference, and so far, retail executives are leaving no topic untouched.

Over the course of two days, more than 60 retail presentations will take place at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. All the heavy hitters are here including Walmart, Target, PVH, Saks, Nordstrom, JCPenney, Ross Stores, Michael Kors, Lowe's, Dollar Tree,Costcoand many more.

Nearly every management team has been asked about the health of the consumer, and some common themes seem to be resonating.

While consumers are spending now, the continued macroeconomic uncertainty is keeping management commentary cautious. Similarly, there is some concern that the political uncertainty surrounding the election and the looming fiscal cliff could rattle consumers heading into the all-important Christmas holiday season.

That said, retailers continue to invest in their future, with an emphasis on improving multi-channel — or online, mobile, and brick-and-mortar — offerings and experiences, now and in the near-future.

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Beyond the major themes surrounding the health of the consumer, a number of notable nuggets have emerged from individual presentations regarding trends and performance.

Ringing Up Strong Sales at JCPenney Izod Stores

PVHCEO Emanuel "Manny" Chirico discussed PVH's new Izod shops in hundreds of JCPenney stores, which rolled out just five days ago.

According to Chirico, PVH loves the way the brand is being presented at JCPenney, and sees it as a real kick to the Izod business. Chirico also revealed that the first four-to-five days have already seen strong selling. While PVH would like to see JCPenney's overall traffic improve, the retailer has been a great branding partner so far, he said.

High-End Holding Up

When it comes to the high-end, Saks and Nordstromexecutives pay attention to the challenging economic environment, but are choosing to focus on what is within the retailers' control, like improving the experience for consumers whether they shop online or at their retail stores. (Read More: The Swag Wars: Why Bloggers Are Key to the Consumer)

Saks CEO Steve Sadove said the luxury consumer has held up reasonably well and he doesn't know if a second-term for President Barack Obama or a win for Mitt Romney would be good or bad for the Saks consumer. Sadove hopes Saks' omnichannel investment will capture a very valuable customer.

"I believe there is a once-in-a-generation change going on, revolving around omnichannel. Consumers want to purchase anywhere they want and want a seamless experience...the omnichannel shopper has a three- to four-times higher propensity to spend."

Nordstrom President Blake Nordstrom acknowledged there are fundamental issues with the economy, but their customers are responding to "newness," without signs of price sensitivity. The high-end retailer is focusing on what's within management's control and trying not to dwell on those factors that aren't. As an example, Nordstrom plans to spend $1 billion on technology and service-related improvements over the next five years. (Read More: Ready for a Back-to-School Buying Binge? Women Are)

Michael Kors is one of the most successful high-end retailers around the world right now, and the presentation by CEO John Idol on Wednesday was to a packed room, with hundreds from the financial community in attendance. Idol continues to expect that luxury spending will grow in the near future, and expects spending on accessories is a global trend.

Small Format Working for Wal-Mart

Walmart U.S.CEO Bill Simon made the lunch presentation Wednesday, and provided details about the retailer's smaller format stores for the first time. He said Walmart's Neighborhood Markets and Express Stores, which he called the most versatile retail formats in the marketplace, were performing above plan.

According to Simon, these smaller format stores are offering a wider assortment than dollar stores, have price advantages over drug stores, and access to general merchandise through Wal-Mart's "site-to-store" program. "Site-to-store" sales can be as high as 20 percent of sales in certain weeks of year, he said.

When asked about consumer confidence and sentiment, Simon responded by saying: "Our customers tell us they are worried about uncertainty, but at the same time, they have grown accustomed to chaos. They've figured out how to get through it...our customers haven't given us any indication they are going to cheat their families out of a good holiday season."

Retailers At The GS Conference

-By Courtney Reagan, CNBC Reporter

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