Will Aussie Retail be “Rooned”?

Posted on Posted in retail strategy

“We’ll all be rooned”, said Hanrahan, “Before the year is out.” That line is from a famous 1921 Australian bush poem. Hanrahan’s view was that ruin was a certainty, no matter the conditions. No rain meant drought; too much rain signaled either flood, or worse – grass growth and bushfire. Fast-forward to 2014, and the pessimistic Hanrahan* could have been a local retailer (particularly a small one).

We’ve all met the “Hanrahan-type”– times are always “tough”, sales are “slow” and things could be “better”. And with the trickle of international names turning into a torrent this year (H&M, Uniqlo, Forever 21**), Hanrahan would no doubt be shaking his head and declaring “we’ll all be rooned”. But will Aussie retail be “rooned” or will we rise to the challenge?

My view is that the landscape will continue to be re-shaped, and those retailers of scale that are not globally competitive, sharply positioned, digitally enabled and data-driven will be re-shaped right outta here. But I also think that there is a place for merchants of all shapes and sizes in the newly globalised Australian retail scene.

On a recent trip to a conference in Noosa, I took a walk down Hastings Street and was heartened to see, amongst the me-too dross, a couple of small independent retailers that were truly world-class.

The first was a brand-new homewares, furnishings and giftware retailer called “Uncle George”. The owners (also the buyers) had a sharp eye for interesting product, the sales assistant was also a visual merchandiser with a sense of colour and display, and the items were affordably and irresistibly priced. A journey through the store was to embark on a treasure hunt, with delicious finds around every corner.

They’d even thought through the shopper’s needs, and created some brightly coloured bench-seats outside the store that formed a “male parking area”. Customers started asking to buy the seats, so “Uncle George” quickly began selling the cushions under the brand name “Smart Arses”. Smart indeed.

A few doors up was another cute and clever store called “Lamington” with an eclectic range of “must-haves”, and a sign pointing to the entrance reading “nice shop”.

I loved the locally-sourced tea-towels with a range of graphics, hung in rows as if on a washing line.

And I was also attracted to the sign in the window alongside stacks of novelty toilet paper, proclaiming “Who Gives A Crap We Do”.

That’s not a bad philosophical starting point for an Aussie retailer in 2014. Don’t give up. Give a crap. About everything.

Give a crap about your customer and build a value proposition they’ll genuinely care about. Obsess over every element of your strategy and marketing mix. And don’t discount when you could be adding value.

Merchants who are constantly innovative and imaginative, and have a “price plus” position will stay relevant in the face of international competitors. And those who don’t, well…they’ll all be “rooned”, perhaps “before the year is out.”

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