Tuesday, October 04, 2011

We just clicked

The other day I bought a gizmo on the internet. It took about 10 minutes, cost me just $8 including postage, and I did it in my pyjamas at 11pm.

In terms of convenience, you can't really get much better than that. (And before we go any further, no, it wasn't THAT kind of gizmo, thanks very much. I already have two SlapChops).

By contrast, I tried to buy the same gizmo from a shop the previous week and it was a pain. It took me 40 minutes to find a park and battle the crowds before I could even locate one, and when I did it was a grossly inflated $40.

Not that I could have bought it if I'd wanted to, as it was in one of those mega electrical stores that sells everything from popcorn makers to computers where the three overworked staff are permanently tied up with clueless shoppers trying to explain the difference between gigabytes and megahertz and why none of that matters anyway if they only want a laptop to look at photos of their grandkids.

And it goes without saying (I hope) that none of this was achieved in my pyjamas.

The moral of the story is: Internet shopping is quick, convenient, usually cheaper and allows consumers to buy anything, any time - and now with iPhones, iPads and smart phone technology, anywhere.

These ladies normally shop online too, but their computer crashed.

But Australian retailers still seem to be wondering why shoppers are turning off traditional storefronts. Stores that are only open from 9 to 5 (except for late night shopping days, granted). Stores that you have to fight to find a park for. Stores that never seem to have any staff to help you. Stores that have to drastically mark-up the cost of things to cover their overheads.

They have long complained about internet shopping and how it's costing local jobs, how it's unfair, how it should be taxed, yada yada yada.

The fact is, if Australian retailers had jumped on board the online shopping bandwagon 10 years ago, they might not be in this mess now.

Electrical giant Harvey Norman this week announced it will launch an online version of the store in a few weeks, which is great news, even if CEO Gerry Harvey did sound rather like he'd been railroaded into it and would prefer the internet to just go away, thanks very much.

In his announcement, Harvey complained there was "no history of anyone making money" through internet retail. (I assume he was talking locally, unless he's somehow never heard of Amazon, BookDepository or iTunes.)

If that's true, perhaps that's because Australians have a) never really tried to sell things online and b) never been very good at it.

Our two biggest department stores - Myer and David Jones - mostly use their websites to promote their catalogues and store locations, only offering a small selection of goods in special "shop online" sections you have to squint to find.

Compare this to American department stores Nordstrom (nordstrom.com) and Macys (macys.com), where the entire website functions as the shop (how novel), and the benefits of using it are made obvious to the shopper: Free shipping! Spring sale! Online specials! Aussie shops take note: It's 2011. You don't need to tell customers to "click here" anymore. Just give it to us.

Overseas retailers are winning Australian consumers' dollars not only because they're cheaper - they offer more stuff and they know how to sell it to savvy web users. It's not rocket science.

The thing is, there are drawbacks to buying things from international sellers that local retailers could seize on if they were smart.

Postage from overseas can be expensive and slow - nothing takes the gloss off your "instant purchase" quicker than having to wait five weeks for it to arrive. You wouldn't have that problem with a local purchase.

Plus you don't always know who you're buying from, or what they might do with your credit card details. But local brands like Myer, Harvey Norman and DJs already have a level of trust built-in that will go a long way with shoppers.

I'm glad Harvey Norman is taking the plunge into the big scary world of online retail. It's about time for the others to stop shivering on the shore and jump in too.

This article was first published in the Adelaide Sunday Mail's Sunday liftout on April 3, 2011.


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