09/01/2007 - 22:00

Retail trading hours back in the spotlight

09/01/2007 - 22:00


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The retail trading debate is on again. This time I have far less sympathy for so-called small business than before.

The retail trading debate is on again. 

This time I have far less sympathy for so-called small business than before.

Three years ago, we took a great deal of trouble to analyse the market and, with some considerable effort, compared the impact of deregulation in other states compared to unregulated Western Australia when it came to the supermarket sector.

Surprise, surprise – WA’s supermarkets were far more independent, with only around 60 per cent of the market held by Coles and Woolworths compared with around 80 per cent in other states.

It was a compelling argument against altering the status quo and letting so many head offices (small, though they are) go east, along with their expertise, local spending on services, local taxes and more local buying decisions.

Of course, I have always preferred the free market as a way of sorting out marketplaces.

No matter how compelling that argument for protection might be, three long years has removed many of its key planks.

Firstly, there has been considerable selling out of independent stores to the majors, including the loss of the Action chain, across the supermarket sector and beyond.

Secondly, the more people speak to me about this issue, the fewer people I find who believe in protecting certain businesses against competition.

Perhaps this is simply my constituency, and maybe the booming economy has put concerns about the domination of the retail sector by a few players out of people's minds.

Thirdly, the speed with which other seemingly impossible barriers to progress have been broken down – liquor licensing and daylight saving as examples – makes me feel there is a revolutionary air about the state at the moment.

Fourthly, as weak as this argument may be, I feel the referendum was tainted by the way politicians, special interest groups and their behind-the-scenes-mates manipulated the referendum question.

Finally, I am beginning to suspect the people being protected are taking the mickey.

For instance, only 18 months after winning this referendum to save their precious ‘small’ businesses, they have been lobbying parliamentarians to double the maximum staff numbers allowed for Sunday trading from 10 to 20. That’s double, in case you haven’t noticed.

The fact that they have extracted a 30 per cent gain is bad enough, though at least this reflects the reality – for one can be sure that many flout this law and I am doubtful it is policed particularly toughly.

While I have the greatest respect for retailers that do a great job, the truth is the real success stories of WA retail have done so in competitive sectors where they had little protection – other than the tyranny of distance.

Some of our fast food players and hardware giant Bunnings are good examples of competitive players who’ve carved out a national profile, the latter finding WA laws something of a hindrance to its plans to expand its range of wares.

In publishing there’s no such protection.

While in media we have the ridiculous scenario of television giants being kept free of competition for a long-broken promise of local content, the print sectors only protection comes at the big end due to cross-ownership laws.

No-one is running about telling News Corp they can’t publish on a Sunday.

We operate with one large local gorilla and a national giant with a relatively small WA presence.

This pair, WA Newspapers and News Corp, dominate the local print market.

Rather than whinge about it, we relish the challenge this brings – for us to develop a product that enough readers care about to an extent that we can exist.

Why can’t our retailers feel the same?



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