Former US president Bill Clinton was the big speaker draw at New York’s NRF this year. But what does he know about retail?

It was standing room only in the main conference hall at the National Retail Federation show on Monday 16th, when headline speaker Bill Clinton got to the stage.

The massive New York-based conference and retail technology exhibition is an unlikely place to hear one of the world’s most recognisable politicians speak, but alongside Terry Lundgren - who is chairman and CEO of Macy’s and the chairman of the NRF - he soon had the audience enthralled.

Introducing himself by talking through some of the charitable endeavours he has undertaken since leaving office, the former President soon set minds at ease that he would be tackling the subjects of the economy and retail too.

Employing some of his renowned charm, he commented that he might easily have become a retailer himself and he was certainly well-briefed on the industry numbers. Retail sales grew at around 5% in the US last year, compared to the economy which grew by only 2%. Retail makes up around 20% of total US GDP and supports almost 25% of the country’s jobs.

Clinton’s theme was focused on building sustainable economies in every sense of sustainable: a more stable world with better systems in the emerging economies, more ecologically sustainable and improved income equality to create a broad middle-class as the environment where retail best thrives.

Clinton rallied against protectionist measures, highlighting that the US is dependent on trade. “We have 4% of the world’s population, and 20% of the world economy; if we want to keep this we need to sell some stuff to someone else.” However, he was clear that the US manufacturing sector should be focused on high-quality products.

Corporate and personal tax rates both came in for criticism, and he says the US Government also needs to create a tax environment that rewards businesses who create jobs.

He said investment in the US had not produced enough new jobs in the past decade, instead leading to an asset bubble and an increase in the inequality of wealth. He also pointed out the social consequences of such a shift to both individuals and retailers.

“I never doubted for a minute that I could make a living. The recent economic crisis has shattered that,” he said adding to the retailers in the room, “If you are leading the country out of recession, you are doing something far more important than putting people back into work and putting money in people’s pockets.”

He pointed out that middle-aged males without college degrees are turning to retail jobs that previously women would have taken, and there could be further knock-on effects to the US labour market from this. Clinton added that there are 3 million vacancies in the US today, and half of them would already have been filled if it weren’t for a lack of skills and training among the unemployed.

He also highlighted the huge amount the US spends on healthcare, 17.6% of GDP, compared to an average of between 9% and 12% in other countries. Spending on healthcare in the US is only marginally less than total retail spend. On message with fellow Democrat President Obama’s vision with his controversial healthcare legislation, Clinton claims that bringing down this figure will be beneficial to the economy.

The former President was speaking at the conference off the back of his work with the Clinton Foundation and US retail chain Macy’s. The retailer has championed the sale of Haitian artisan products in its stores since the earthquake that devastated the country in 2010. In fact, the project has been such a success that Clinton said it’s the one area of the Haitian economy that is now doing better than it was before the earthquake struck.

However, his proposed measures are unlikely to kick-start the US economy in such a short timeframe.