Australian retailers need to buck up!

Mainstream Australian retailers need to improve: their online stores lag behind those overseas as well as those of Australia-based eBay traders.

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered two similar items online, one from a company in Sydney and another from Philadelphia. To avoid any trouble at home, let me be vague and just say that both of these items can probably be found on the same shelf in a physical camera store. The item from Philly arrived at my desk in just under a week. Furthermore, I received timely updates about my order, an email from the supplier when the package was shipped and a follow-up message after it arrived. Meanwhile, the order status from the Sydney store went through several stages and got stuck at “ready soon”. When when I finally telephoned them, a customer service officer mumbled an excuse and said it would be shipped soon. The item finally arrived today, a total of 15 days from start to finish.

I have had similarly poor experiences ordering a variety of products online from mainstream Australian retailers. Their online presence is often just an afterthought, with high prices, weak product variety, clunky websites and unhelpful customer service. As a result of the strong Aussie dollar, shoppers are increasingly buying online and from overseas. Rather than complain about poor business conditions, Australian retailers need to buck up. I don’t believe it can’t be done because there is a category of Australian retailers that is already as efficient as those overseas: eBay-based Australian stores. These are small and medium sized entities that use eBay as a storefront. One reason they are responsive is that when searching eBay, overseas competitors’ offerings appear on the same page as theirs, so rivals are not even a mouse click away. A second reason is user feedback. Each time a transaction clears, buyers and sellers can leave feedback about each another and eBay reports a breakdown of ratings over time (see sample image below). This generates an incentive to continually maintain good customer service so as to avoid a fall in reputation. It generally seems to work pretty well. I would go further and argue that we should expect even better service from big-name Australian retailers than from these eBay based stores, but we aren’t receiving anything close to it right now.
Sample eBay rating

Videos now available for “Who Owns The News?” seminar

who-owns-the-news-panel
Click Image for Video Album

Last week MBS hosted a public seminar on “Who Owns the News?” exploring the impact of the internet on the news industry. The event was organized by IPRIA, CMCL and MBS CITE. It serves to clarify the key issues and lays the groundwork for a discussion of these issues. I had fun and hope that the 110+ people who attended it did too.

Sam Ricketson, Professor at Melbourne Law School, chaired the event and did a great job orchestrating the Q&A session. Mark Davison from Monash spoke about changes in copyright law and expressed concerns over the “Hot News” doctrine, an approach currently being proposed by news organizations in the US to prevent others from copying their content. Stephen King outlined the economic issues and has posted his very thoughtful comments at https://economics.com.au/?p=5909.

As the discussant, I described what I had learnt from Mark and Stephen and also tried to consider various options faced by a CEO in this industry. My pdf slides are at http://works.bepress.com/kwanghui/18. While my comments might have been perceived as pessimistic by Stephen and others, I am actually quite optimistic about the future of the industry, but mainly for individuals and  firms trying out innovative ways of gathering and delivering the news. I am however pessimistic about existing firms: if history has taught us anything, it is that many of them will struggle to adapt with these drastic changes.

The video recordings for “Who Owns the News?” are now available. I have posted them at http://vimeo.com/album/253549. Portions were removed to protect the identity of audience members. We thank the speakers for permission to share their insights online. Enjoy the show 😉

How attractive is pricing for the proposed National Broadband Network?

Today the Government released a report by McKinsey and KPMG suggesting it could build a National Broadband Network — without Telstra — for about $43 billion. There are potentially strong benefits of widespread public access to the internet, even if these benefits are hard to add up and may not be realizable today, especially for faster broadband speeds. One of the features highlighted in the new report is open access at a low price, around $30 wholesale for the cheapest tier, which would translate to about $50 retail. In an interview with ABC News Radio this afternoon, I was asked if this really is an attractive price. By today’s standards, it does seem low. However there are two important assumptions being made. First, there will be no cost blowouts beyond the mild scenarios outlined in the report (try not to think of Myki). Second, that $50/month will still be attractive when the network is ready in about a decade. Let us not forget that even over the past few years prices have fallen dramatically. OECD data shows that a broadband plan in Australia costing $130/month in 2005 only cost $70 per month in 2008. Prices are falling across the world and this trend is likely to continue: telecommunications technology (both wired and wireless) is experiencing rapid innovation. I’m not saying that the Government should not proceed but that we should view these projections with a bit of caution.

A separate issue is whether Telstra is likely to partner with the Government on this project. They have to decide by June. While there are potential cost savings involved, I suspect it is unrealistic. Leaving aside past personality issues and legal threats, the reality is that both parties have different objectives. The government wants to offer broad-based access at a low cost, including to non-metropolitan areas that are expensive to serve. Telstra would probably find it profitable to offer fiber in metropolitan areas and at a higher price. Would they really want to go all the way up to serving 93% of the population with fiber as the Government intends? In the report, costs are a lot higher for serving the last 10%. This may matter to voters, and politicans, but to Telstra the remaining 10-20% of the population may be adequately served if they had NextG coverage, or less. Plus there is the matter of Telstra’s existing copper lines to complicate matters…