Changing Australia

Change happens, and the only surprising thing for me about the change that has thrown my industry into turmoil is that it took so long to happen so quickly. We knew that change was inevitable. And we knew that because we ourselves were buying and selling cars online, checking out houses for sale online, watching job offers online, buying and selling stuff at online auction and classifieds sites, and we were doing the deal with a click at our desk or in a lounge chair in our living room.

And when oldies like me have a handle on uploading photos and video, on moving around these sites like it’s second nature, on searching and setting alerts, on emailing and texting buyers and sellers as though we’ve had that technology all our lives, we should have realised that the change would not continue as a straight line on a graph, that we were accelerating towards dramatic change. We didn’t.

When newspaper staff, like so many other people, relied on the internet for news, we should have realised that even the word newspaper was at risk of becoming silly, no news and no paper. But while news is instant and free, there is still a role for newspapers and their websites in detail, commentary and analysis, for the same reasons I and many others have been relying on paper newspapers for detail and analysis of the massive changes announced by my employer this week.

Of course the newspaper industry won’t be the only one hit so hard by the internet, and I believe the retail industry is accelerating towards massive change. Just as the number of consumers who use car, property and job sites seemed to reach a critical mass so suddenly, so will the number of consumers who shop online. We’ve seen the impact of online shopping on major book retailers, and while we knew that more of us were buying more books online the crash of the Borders and Angus and Robertson retailers, the closing of their big and generously stocked bookshops, was a shock. Perhaps, too, it was something more than a shock for those of us who’d examine books at their stores before buying online for less than half the price.

A year ago the proportion of people using bricks-and-mortar shops as a fitting service for online retailers was such that some retailers were introducing a fitting fee, which they’d take off the price if the customer bought at the store. This unconscionable use of traditional shops seems to have increased to the point where some retailers assume the person looking is planning to buy online, where many lookers don’t bother to hide their intentions.

A survey of 1200 Australian shoppers by Crossman Communications has just found that 65 per cent of shoppers try in the shop before they search the internet for the best deal and buy online and probably overseas. Most of these people blamed poor service in shops for their buying online, saying they’d buy in the shops if the service were better, if there were more shop assistants, and I wonder if many of these people realise the link between buying online and reduced numbers of shop assistants.

It seems to me, too, that the number of shop assistants in department stores has been decreasing, but I have no doubt that the major reason people buy online is price, often a price half or less of that in the shop with freight included. Major Australian retailers seem to think that merely going online will allow them to compete with overseas online retailers, that lower price is almost incidental, which dooms them to a sticky end online as well as in shop.

What I expect to be a crash in our retail industry will have a huge impact. Overseas online retailers don’t rent Australian buildings, they don’t buy cars in Australia, they don’t employ Australians, they don’t advertise in Australia, they don’t use accountants in Australia, or lawyers, their employees don’t buy houses or cars or clothes or food in Australia.

Some call it globalisation. And if globalisation means everyone in the world will have the same standard of living, it may be that Australians will be fortunate. I fear we will soon have much more to weather than the turmoil in my industry.

What internet-driven change do you see for Australia in the next decade or so?

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