Mon, Aug 01, 2011 - Page 11 News List

Australians shop online, sending retailers adrift

SHOPPERS STAY HOME:Internet shopping rose 13 percent to more than A$13 billion last year, with half of those sales going to foreign vendors

AFP, SYDNEY

Shoppers walk past a store advertising heavy discounts in Melbourne, Australia, on Wednesday.

Photo: AFP

She wouldn’t call it an addiction, but Australian Emily Spencer has an online shopping habit.

“EBay was my online equivalent of a gateway drug,” said the Sydney graphic designer, 27, who now shops almost exclusively on the Internet, even bulk-ordering rice crackers. “I loathe shopping in the real world, particularly clothes shopping.”

In the past two months, Spencer has spent A$640 (US$690) online, more than the average Australian spends over the Internet in a year, buying a printer, sunglasses, a water bottle, shoes, headphones and a shoulder bag.

For Australia’s embattled retail sector it is a worrying trend: Online shopping surged 13 percent last year to A$13.6 billion and almost half the sales went to offshore vendors, as buyers took advantage of the local dollar’s meteoric rise against the greenback.

Though still a small share of national retail sales — about 5.5 percent — online trade is booming, according to a study published last week by PricewaterhouseCoopers which estimates sales will reach A$21.7 billion by 2015.

“In the last couple of years since the global financial crisis, frugality’s been the new black and people are looking for value,” study author Stuart Harker said.

Leaps in technology were the main driver of online sales, with more than 50 percent of Australians owning a smartphone and one-third shopping via a mobile or tablet device “anywhere at any time and buying anything they want,” he said.

Cyber advances had also meant more secure payment systems and streamlined supply chains which meant products would arrive from top markets the US, Britain and Asia within a week.

Australia’s largest department store, Myer, estimates Australians make online purchases worth up to A$24 billion annually. It hopes to tap the lucrative market with the launch of its own foreign Web site later this year.

However, the downside is the Internet boom is hitting “bricks and mortar” stores, with growth in Australian retail spending dropping to levels last seen during the global downturn and no real consumption growth in the past three years.

Top-end department store David Jones rattled the market last month with a drastic profit downgrade, warning of a major slump in sales, and central bank Governor Glenn Stevens has cautioned the days of rampant consumption are over.

At least 10 major retail chains have been placed in receivership in the past two years and others, forced to slash prices, have closed stores, while the National Retail Association estimates online shopping has cost 2,000 jobs.

With consumer sentiment sagging 8.3 percent last month and high inflation raising the prospect of an interest rate hike, cautious Australians are now saving about 11 percent of their income.

Spencer said it was “only a matter of time” before the old ways of shopping were a novelty and online purchases were king, with an infinitely wider range, lower costs and the convenience and comfort of never having to leave the house.

“What I could spend half a day or more looking for in shops I could find in less than 10 minutes online,” she said.

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