Why Australian retailers suck

AUSTRALIAN retailers are always quick to whinge about the trading conditions they have to put up with, due to the high value of the Australian dollar.

They are very quick to offer excuse after excuse for their poor performance.

But there are other, more fundamental, reasons why Australian retailing is going downhill. The following anecdotes, drawn from my own experience, may provide some insight.

A fortnight ago, I visited JB Hi-Fi in order to purchase a pair of earphones. Before going to the store, I had looked at the company’s website and decided which one I wanted.

When I got there, the saleswoman told me that the model I was looking for was not in stock. JB is a big retailer with stores all over Australia but its website had no way of telling a visitor that a particular item was not in a particular store. Score one for the retailer.

Anyway, since I had gone there, I did not want to waste the trip; I looked around and chose another set of earphones, one made by Sony, which was marked at $99. The one I had wanted to buy was marked $69 on the website.

When I got back home with my purchase, I decided, on a whim, to find out how much it was retailing for in other outlets.

I was quite shocked to find them for sale for $53 in Britain. Another $9 would bring them to my door in four or five days.

That’s nearly a 60 per cent markup – $62 to $99. And this was happening at a time when the Australian dollar was worth about $1.03 US dollars – if anything the price should have been cheaper.

Australian retailers often try to escape criticism about this kind of price rip-off by saying that the outlet offering the cheaper price can afford to do so because of volume purchases.

But JB cannot do this; it is one of the bigger electronics retailers in the country and can easily buy as much volume as any other trader.

I took the earphones back to JB and returned them. The woman at the counter asked me why I had brought it back and I told her that it was because I was being ripped off. I added that I did not mind paying up to $75 for the convenience of getting it in hand, but that $99 was akin to daylight robbery.

It’s not the pricing alone that puts one off Australian retailers. Shop people have a sloppy attitude and often do not seem to know what is in their own place of work. I went by Rebel Sports that same morning to buy some athletic supporters. The woman I encountered did not seem to know what supporters were. She understood when I used the cruder word, jockstraps.

She then directed me upstairs. On my way thither, I encountered a young man who asked what I was looking for. When I told him (he did not understand the term “athletic supporters” either), he told me they were on a shelf downstairs!

I then told him that a woman on the ground floor had told me very confidently that what I was looking for was displayed upstairs. He shook his head and said he would take me downstairs and prove that he was right; we found a single supporter in the display area there.

On my way out, I asked the woman why she was unaware of the location of items in the store she worked in; she had no reply. No customer would return to that store again after encountering such stupidity.

A third example. A company called Our Deal offers rebates on good from various sources; one has to visit the site and look for deals, then provide one’s location and purchase the deal. Vouchers are then provided to the buyer and these, when taken to the outlet, can be redeemed for the product in question.

But Our Deal differs from the average outlet that accepts credit card payments; in every outlet I have dealt with over the last 10 years, the final screen after the purchase provides a receipt that be printed out as proof of purchase. Our Deal insists on sending the vouchers to an email address – which means that they can keep pumping their spam out to you day after day.

I always give fake email addresses to sites like this as there is no reason for them to contact me again; hence I had to contact Our Deal again. They have only a form on their website to make contact – and apparently it takes seven days for a reply! Seven days for an online outlet in the 21st century – now you know why Australian online outlets are not attracting too many customers. But the company’s phone number is easily locatable on the web. After two phone calls and a bit of tough talk, I got the vouchers sent to an email address that exists. It took two hours in all.

The person at the shop where I went to redeem the vouchers had never heard of Our Deal. Score one for communications. It took a few phone calls up and down the line before I could redeem the voucher.

I also got an email from Our Deal, saying that their “detectives” were onto the job to investigate my complaint. Add childishness to incompetence, a rather potent combination. Good reasons to avoid Our Deal like poison from now on.

Blurring the message

GONE are the days when politicians would speak directly to the people in order to communicate their message. These days, politicians use the media as a shield to try and get the message across.

That’s why they fail to win popular support.

It’s difficult to understand why, if politicians are seeking public support, they cannot go out and interact with the source of their power. Unless, of course, they are bad communicators, are afraid of being embarrassed in public, or are simply ill at ease with crowds.

The Australian Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, is not the most intelligent person in politics in the country; he is not an attractive individual in many ways. But he is brave enough to go out in public and mix with people. Sometimes he comes off as a buffoon, at others, h strikes a chord with the crowd. But no matter what the outcome, he takes that risk.

That is why a man who is detested by the intelligentsia at large now looks very much like becoming the next prime minister when the country goes to the polls in 2013.

Undoubtedly, once Abbott comes to power, people will tire of him pretty soon as he is largely a policy-free zone. He is akin to the premier of the state of Victoria, Ted Baillieu, who was elected in 2010 and had no real plan for the state. Hence he does nothing. He has no ideas, no vision, no plans. He just wants to keep things on an even keel – and that is a difficult proposition during a time when global economic conditions are conspiring against Australia.

Using the media as a shield is not always a good idea. At times, one comes across a journalist and then the politician stands exposed. Hence politicians tend to favour those who will give them an easy ride – people whom one cannot call journalists, people who are more oriented to behave as PR professionals would.

There is a school of thought that manipulation of public sentiment can continue ad infinitum. This is a serious mistake. At some stage, the people do react and will not take it any longer. News Corporation, the biggest media organisation in the world, found this out in a different context when it hacked into the phone of a deal girl and gave the impression that she was still alive; the public reaction forced the prime minister of Britain to act and now the brown stuff has fallen all over the company.

But taking a risk is not part of a politician’s routine. He or she follows the dictates of spinmeisters until the day of being ejected from that seat arrives. Then comes a vow to do it better the next time around. A time which, sometimes, does not eventuate.