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CHICAGO-Nearly 200 retail leaders have turned out for the Retail Industry Leaders Association’s Annual Leaders Exchange conference, which began here on Sunday and will come to a close today. Taking place at the Chicago Downtown Marriott, the conference has brought industry leaders to the Windy City from across the country and overseas.

After an early breakfast, attendees gathered Monday morning in the ballroom for RILA’s first panel discussion, Reality Retail: Much More Than Fiction. Fox News economic analyst Stuart Varney moderated the open-forum session. Panelists included Gordon Brown, managing director of United Kingdom-based Wilkinson Hardware Stores Ltd.; Howard Levine, chairman and CEO with Matthews, NC-based Family Dollar Stores Inc.; and Kathleen Mason, president and CEO of Dallas-based Tuesday Morning Corp.

The discussion centered on the role of a company leader in the face of a changing industry. All panelists said that while technology plays a critical role in the 24/7, 365-day-a-year position, a hands-on approach to leadership and hiring the right people are key ingredients to the most successful company recipes.

“I would say my approach is collaborative,” Mason of Tuesday Morning said. “You have to have the best people in place, and everyone needs to work together. You can’t know everything that’s going on, so you need people you can trust.”

In regard to obtaining information, all three leaders agreed that getting out into the field was the most fruitful way to generate consumer and industry know-how. “It’s about the feel,” Brown with Wilkinson said. “It’s the feel you get just by walking around, listening to customers and talking with team leaders.” However, when Varney polled the audience, the response was a dead-heat between a technology-driven approach and physically visiting retail units. Mason, a self-described “technology junkie,” was quick to point out that a combination of both methods are critical.

All panelists agreed that brand recognition was extremely important for customer loyalty. Tuesday Morning, with 700 stores across the US, sells itself as closeout retailer offering, “Identical or similar inventory to that found in better catalogs, department or specialty stores.” Wilkinson Hardware Stores also offers recognized brands, Brown noted. “It’s a critical driver,” he said. “We switch between brands happily.”

Serving low- to middle-income customers, Family Dollar, with more than 5,900 stores in 44-states, says it offers a consistent selection of brand name and good-quality merchandise. “Brands have been important to generate traffic,” said Levine. “Our customers feel as though they can trust these brands; yes, it’s very important.”

Going into the holiday season, all three retailers said they are expecting challenges. Although no one on the panel predicted negative comp sales for the coming winter, all said that inflated gas prices and a lack in consumer confidence would keep sales from increasing. Levine pointed out that while Family Dollar has 8,000 items in stock, the company is tweaking its inventory to reflect today’s consumer trend of purchasing basic needs rather than discretionary items.

In all, the conference is offering attendees more than 50 interactive sessions with some of the industry’s leading execs including members of the organization’s board of directors. Board members include the top-tiered executives of Best Buy Co., Lowe’s Cos. Inc, Target Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Michaels Stores Inc., and Tractor Supply Co.

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