18/06/2009 - 00:00

Support the retail trade push

18/06/2009 - 00:00


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If Western Australians don’t like extended retail trading hours, why is my local IGA supermarket busy from 7am until 10pm, seven days a week?

Support the retail trade push

PREMIER Colin Barnett deserves to be commended for boldly tackling the sensitive issue of retail trading hours.

Western Australia is out of step with the rest of the country and most places around the world in failing to liberalise retail trading hours.

Some parochial Western Australians probably see that as a badge of honour. Many others see it as outdated, anomalous, inconvenient and inequitable.

The last two factors are most significant.

Many people find it difficult to complete their shopping during the traditional retail trading hours. The closing of shops in the evening and on much of the weekend is a hassle.

That leads to the inequity. A small number of shops, because of anachronistic rules and regulations, are reaping big profits from the current restrictions.

At the forefront of this group are the independent supermarkets, which enjoy a government-enforced monopoly in the evenings and on Sundays.

No wonder they are funding a mass media advertising campaign, launched this week, to oppose the premier's plan to extend weeknight-trading hours.

Mr Barnett has put forward a pragmatic compromise proposal that falls short of full deregulation, but is a substantial improvement on the current arrangements.

The critics of his proposal start by asserting that this issue was settled at the 2005 retail trading hours referendum; but was it?

All policy making forums are imperfect, including referendums.

Can we safely assume that a majority of Western Australians voted against the principle of extended retail trading hours? Their shopping habits suggest otherwise.

Or did they vote 'no' because of an emotive and highly effective campaign that asserted the big retail groups, Coles and Woolworths, would grow to dominate the market?

I suspect it was the latter. That was certainly the main thrust of the advertising campaign run at the time, largely funded by and to the benefit of the independent supermarket operators.

The independent supermarkets are using every tool at their disposal to keep their monopoly on weeknight and Sunday trading.

I admire their commercial tenacity but am surprised at their ability to retain the high moral ground in this debate.

My perspective on retail trading is informed by several years living in other cities with a more liberal approach.

In 1983 I moved to Canberra and, being a naive Perth lad, was amazed to find supermarkets trading seven days a week, and selling packaged liquor and fresh meat.

The social order did not collapse as a result.

The market was not dominated by a couple of big national chains.

There was vibrant competition, and consumers enjoyed the convenience. Not all stores were open all the time; like consumers, the retailers were able to choose when they traded,

Retailers had to compete on price, quality and service. And surprise, surprise, many smaller stores thrived.

The same would happen in Perth if the laws were liberalised.

My local IGA is a prime example. It has a great selection of produce, it is very accessible and convenient, and I'm sure it will continue to trade successfully if the laws are changed.

If Western Australians are genuinely concerned about the big national chains growing to dominate the local market, they should put their money where their mouth is and shop at independent supermarkets.

In practice, I doubt that will happen.

Look at hardware stores. The punters have flocked to Bunnings stores, evidently because they put low prices and a wide stock selection ahead of the service and convenience they used to get at their local hardware store.

The same process is under way in the liquor trade, as giant stores like Dan Murphy's attract punters with prices and range the smaller stores can't match.

If that's what consumers want, they should be given the freedom to choose, even if some people don't like the outcome.

It's not for government to prescribe commercial outcomes in this area.


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