Shop employees start their whining

Now the Shop & Allied Trade Union is weighing into the debate about charging GST on imports under $1,000 in value.

Two things to tell you guys. One, it would cost the government more to collect the money than it would raise. Two, it won’t fix your problem.

The real problem in Australian retail comes down to a few things. The “Westfieldization” of retail shopping, a lack of real service and the stupidity of our local industries.

What do I mean by “Westfieldization”? Here in Australia more and more of our shopping is done in a large shopping centre. Even our smaller centres are growing into medium sized ones. If you have a look at these centres you notice that they are optimised for chain stores rather than smaller retailers, let alone specialist stores. Stores with unusual or specialized stock are getting harder and harder to find.

A few examples.

Sonia, my partner, is mad keen on needlecraft, sewing, knitting and crocheting so she wants to go to a shop where she can look at patterns, yarns, books and fabrics. Apart from one chain of low quality, high turnover stores with staff that know nothing there is one store in the CBD and one in the suburbs. Neither carry an extensive stock. If she wants books then the bookstore chains have only a small section and none of the books are at the more interesting end of the spectrum. To order in a book will take anything up to 8 weeks and, of course, you will pay full retail for it.

Now she goes online. There are at least a dozen Australian online stores that will display all the things she needs. A few of them that I’ve seen are well built, informative, well stocked and offer a reasonable discount from recommended retail pricing, one or two offer free shipping for some orders. When it comes to buying a book we all know where she will end up. Amazon will not only allow her to look at the book’s table of contents but read some informative reviews, search for similar titles and when she wants to buy land it on her desk in about two weeks. The price is not really a concern to her but she will will probably end up paying less than the US cover price even when she adds in postage. A 10% GST on top (particularly when our dollar is so strong) would make absolutely no difference to her buying decision and would just delay her getting the book for a few days.

Example two:

I have a particularly nice home theatre system with a good amplifier and speakers. I enjoy listening to music so I like to find good Super Audio CDs to listen to.

Go to your local shopping centre and try and find a store that has a separate SACD section? Go to JB Hi-Fi and ask if they have one. In four out of the five stores I tried the staff didn’t even know what SACD was and asked if it was a new format. (I knew the answer in advance, it was just a quick question while shopping for something else.)

Once again there are a couple of good online stores for buying both new and used SACD discs.

Example three:

I wanted to buy Sonia a Mother’s Day gift. I had noticed that she didn’t have a nice winter dressing gown an she had given me a marvelous, warm, soft, bamboo dressing gown for Christmas. Perfect gift. I got online to try and search out a shop nearby where I could go and look at some to pick size and colour. I found two stores in Sydney that mentioned they might have stock and phoned both. Both said they only had a couple.

On the other hand there was an online store (by coincidence run from an office less than a kilometre from where I work) that offered a good mix of colours and gave me a chart to advise on sizing. It told me within second that my first colour and size pick was unavailable. Express Post was only a few dollars so I ordered and had what I wanted the next day.

I compare this to retail in the U.S. My brother lives in a town just outside Boston with his U.S. born partner so I’m guessing his area and the way he shops is fairly typical.

He does a deal of his shopping at a strip mall. It offers a discount clothing store, discount shoe store, drug store, bank, bakery, coffee shops and a couple of small specialist stores – the one I remember is a video game store. There are a couple of small local produce stores close to him for a few veggies and milk.

Then once a week or so he goes to Costco for his supermarket items. The Costco store is not connected to a shopping centre but sits out alone surrounded by a car park near one or two other warehouse style retailers.

When he wants a specialised product he goes to one of these warehouse style retailers. On one of my visits either he or his son wanted an internal hard drive so we drove to a store that specialised in computers and computer components that was the size of a football field. They had multiple brands of drive in multiple models and sizes right there on the floor and while the staff were not high expert they knew enough to assist. (By comparison, I’m currently thinking of building a Media PC for the home theatre and nowhere can I find somewhere in Sydney that will let me look at a bunch of cases and decide what I want – now online I can find a dozen stores.)

When Graeme wants a bookstore he has two choices. In his town there are a couple of small independent stores that have intriguing and interesting stock from a large number of small, independent publishers – places you can browse for days. Otherwise he can go to a Barnes and Noble (or Borders) which is easily twice, if not three times, the size of Dymocks in the Sydney CBD and probably stocks four or five times the number of titles.

Compare this to Sydney. Will I get any real difference if I travel to Bondi Junction, Chatswood, Macquarie, Broadway or any of a number of shopping centres? I will just get the same stores that are designed to sell the same common mass product, with the same poorly trained and informed staff. While this is going on the centres are sucking in the buyers from the area around them and stopping the development of the specialist stores.

So this drives consumers like me onto online buying. Then when I discover how easy it is to get the specialist items I want delivered what’s to stop me buying my next clock radio or a few business shirts online? I’ll get a better range at a reasonable price delivered quickly. It’s not as if I’m missing out on help from available and informed staff.

The problem is not a lack of 10% GST on imports. The problem, dear Union, is a broken retail model where the consumer is no longer prepared to pay your employers to get in the way of an easy retail transaction just for the convenience of one stop shopping. The problem is a lack of diverse stock in the stores. The problem is a total inefficiency of service delivery. Give us better stores, better stock and better service and we might come back.


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