Jeff Corbett: Paying the true price of progress

WHEN Bunnings arrived in my neck of the woods almost two decades ago I was there in a flash and without the slightest pang about dumping my local hardware stores. It wasn't the price, because I didn't care whether I paid $1 or $2 for a packet of nails I'd buy once in a blue moon, and it wasn't the service, because the owner of the store was invariably friendly as he told me I should have been there half an hour earlier for his last packet of 40mm wood screws.

After I'd driven in bad humour to the hardware store in the next suburb the owner there, too, was always cheery when telling me he was fresh out of 40mm wood screws.

Later I did feel for these owners as in quick succession their stores closed, their business unsaleable and probably with home-secured debt that had increased as turnover had decreased.

Hardware stores had been decimated by a superstore, one so successful it and its ilk were known as category killers, and if there was anything new about the hardware superstore massacre it was only the merciful speed. Decades earlier supermarkets had put corner stores to the sword, although the lingering was longer due, I suspect, to shoppers' difficulty not so much getting to the supermarkets but getting home loaded. Increasing car ownership and two-car ownership sorted that problem soon enough.

A smaller scale war is being waged now among pharmacies, with the new, bigger pharmacies discounting prescription and other medications in the hope, I guess, of enticing shoppers down their long aisles of herbal cure-alls and cosmetics. A month ago I was quoted $32 for six sachets of a skin-cancer cream by a big discount pharmacy and $76 by a smaller pharmacy that promoted itself as a discounter, and so I took the long walk down the big pharmacy's vitamins aisle!

But years ago as Bunnings took all before it, little did I, little did most of us, realise that there was so much more pain to come in the retailing world, that the biggest threat was not the superstore. We all know that is the digital world, the internet, and we have seen its direct impact on such as booksellers, newsagencies, music stores, newspapers and even taxis. The indirect impact, however, may well be greater.

Everything is for sale on the net, with the result that bricks-and-mortar shops of all varieties are now simply showrooms for many of the people who walk through the doors. Browsers photograph their choice, be it a book or shoes or an appliance, and buy later online. Dishonest? Can there be such a thing as a little bit dishonest?

A year ago I was with a young family member looking at a power tool in Bunnings when he whipped out his phone, stabbed briefly at the screen and announced within a minute that it was available for $43 less somewhere else. That's another problem for stores that are not or cannot be the cheapest.

As a way of fighting back traditional retailers seem lately to have incessant sales, and a major effect of this has been to make shoppers even more price conscious. We are reluctant now to buy anything that is not on sale, and we're more likely to check the net price. Getting the lowest price is a sport.

Department stores have made much of their new online presence but from what I've seen they don't seem to realise that internet shopping is about price, that what's too expensive in their store is most certainly too expensive on the net. Yes, I know these stores have an actual shop, an expensive fit-out, and staff with lunch breaks and annual leave, but it's a tough new world.

It used to be that the person behind the counter had the knowledge, and that they were able to use this to steer us towards their choice, but that's another advantage that has been seriously eroded. Like most people I know, I flip around on Google before I buy something of significance and, in all bar a few cases in recent years, I have known more about the product than the salesperson by the time I arrive in the store.

Getting the lowest price is a sport.

And I have been gobsmacked by the willingness of some salespeople to invent what they don't know.

Another indirect impact of the net is a burgeoning secondhand market and our readiness, even eagerness, to buy secondhand. Ebay started that but Gumtree has taken the market and the enthusiasm to a new level, and the resulting buying of used things that may otherwise have been sold new each time must have had its own impact on the retail world.

The change in our shopping world in just 20 years has been astounding, and even when the change was predictable most of those in the business seriously underestimated the pace and the extent of the change. I read that the arrival in Australia of Amazon will bring about massive change again.

We consider change in its impact on our own way of life, but the retail upheaval has had a terrible impact on individuals just like us, on people who have had much of their life tied up in the business that became collateral damage.

If price is the gauge the changes over 20 years have been good, but the price was also cruel.