23/01/2007 - 22:00

There's something about convenience

23/01/2007 - 22:00

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While the retail trading hours debate has waned for the time being, I thought I’d throw a little bit of fresh light on the subject from a personal perspective.

While the retail trading hours debate has waned for the time being, I thought I’d throw a little bit of fresh light on the subject from a personal perspective.

In recent times I’ve been embarking on a bit of journey with regard to consumerism.

Generally speaking, I’m a shopaphobe who gets very uncomfortable in a retail environment, so when debate about trading hours is raised I am quite ambivalent.

While my sympathies lie with the challenges small retailers face, I prefer to revert to the theoretical base of letting market forces prevail.

But my recent experience makes me wonder how this debate has ever occurred in the first place.

In seeking a few solutions in a specialist, but popular, area of the home goods market, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to find shops that were open at times when I wanted to shop, even in what are now considered normal shopping hours let alone in extended hours for independent retailers or special tourism precincts.

It’s been quite a bizarre experience, to find household name outlets in high demand retail areas shut on a Saturday afternoon.

That is something I thought disappeared more than a decade ago, along with petrol rosters.

These are one of two types of business:

• Local businesses that I had never visited previously but whose advertising or reputation led me to attempt to buy something from them when, for the first time, I actually needed it.

• Local businesses that I had used significantly in the past for smaller, less thoughtful, purchases to whom I was a loyal customer.

Both have spent energy in the past, either through advertising or paying for a geographically-convenient lease, to win my business.

Both have ceased to be on my shopping list because I can’t guarantee they’ll be open when they legally, and reasonably, could be.

I found that this was not just a habit of those operating in normal shopping precincts.

Even in the geographic regions demarcated for tourism trading, and therefore allowed special privileges, I found a lack of desire among retailers to actually take advantage of these rules which other traders elsewhere would desperately like to have.

For instance, on a trip into the central business district on a Sunday afternoon to a brand specialist I was greeted with closed doors.

I have to ask myself, why bother?

In the end, probably on four occasions in the past two months, I have ended up in a national retailer which provides a huge range on goods and is prepared to open whenever it is allowed – including Sundays in the city area.

The service was lousy and very impersonal but it was open and, as it happened, very busy.

I am last person to suggest that retail trading is easy or that anyone should be forced to work 70-hour weeks just to please me.

I also realise that small shop owners need a life and that trustworthy, skilled staff can be difficult to find, even if a retailer wants to remain open when they’re not there.

But the truth is that many of these retailers are letting their customers down and, most importantly, training them to buy elsewhere – a clear recipe for failure in this sector.

Whether or not people understood what they were voting for during the referendum two years ago, increasingly cash-rich Western Australians must be wondering why the retailers they voted to protect are choosing not to take advantage of their special status.

Many of these retailers are already electing not to compete with the big retailers they fear, even at times when it is a level playing field, such as Saturday afternoon or Thursday night.

If that is the case, why on earth should Sunday be preserved as their domain? Either everyone can open or no-one can, but giving a few people a licence to trade, which they don’t use, while preventing competition is ridiculous. Use it or lose it, as the modern adage goes.

Ironically, while I was investigating this issue – through actual consumer behaviour rather than the less subjective approach of a journalist – I received a press release from the Subiaco Business Association welcoming the state government’s nomination of the area as a possible tourism precinct.

Understandably, the SBA was keen to push for this to happen. On the face of it, Subiaco is an ideal place for such a retail environment, yet you have to wonder why such an area needs wider retail hours ahead of other parts of WA when many of its retailers fail to take up the hours they can already trade.

It’s like any argument; with rights come responsibilities.

One of the beefs of small retailers is the way shopping centres, as opposed to traditional main street shopping areas like Subiaco, force them to open their shops as part of the lease agreement.

Whether the retailers like it or not, the shopping centre is simply doing the right thing by its customers, to ensure the success of the whole facility.

Retailers outside this environment, it seems, have the privilege of ignoring their customers.

Of course, this situation is unlikely to last long. Already retail trading rules are increasingly irrelevant. People like me are finding new ways to circumvent the system by using modern technology.

Searching the internet for product advice, reviews and comparisons is becoming far easier, even for IT neanderthals like I am.

This process allows the consumer to make decisions, shop direct and source retailers prepared to be open when they need them – without driving the streets on the road to disappointment.

While small retailers can take advantage of internet trading, they are no match for the national giants whose presence on the web and pricing from their warehouses is unbeatable.

In this new world, just as in the past, retailers ignore their customers at their peril.

Like so many unfortunate creatures in our natural environ-ment, all the protection in the world won’t save them from extinction.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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