The (lack of) pace in retail change

Posted on May 7th, 2009 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

The pace of change in the retailing of goods seems to me to be progressing awfully slowly.

Despite the massive impact of the web, and the much lower real costs of accessing information and shipping goods, many shops seem to be stuck in a time that I thought was long past.

Or, would be long past by now, anyway.

The other day my wife and I bought a tent. The tent needs to match very specific criteria. It needs to weigh under 5kg, be a ‘four season’ design, and have room for three people and their gear. It also needs lots of tie-downs. The tent will be used in cycle touring both in Australia and internationally.

Now there are a few things in this list that make sourcing such a tent difficult.

Firstly, most tents sold in Australia are two or three season tents – fair enough, given our relatively mild climate.

Secondly, in light-weight tents, the majority are tight two-person tents, or very tight three-person tents. (Or of course single person tents.)

Thirdly, there are few tents around the thousand dollar budget that we’ve found is needed to buy a quality tent of this type.

We’ve been looking and assessing tents for about a year. In that time, we’ve visited about fifteen different camping shops in three states. As expected, none of these shops had on display a tent matching these specs. All could get such a tent into stock, but didn’t have anything for us to look at.

What was completely unexpected, however, is the poor quality of advice we were constantly given. After stating the criteria and why we had devised such criteria, the camping shop staff invariably asked: “So, where are you going on your trip?” (as if we were buying a $1000 tent for a one-off trip!) and then proceeded to try to sell us an inferior tent that they just happened to have in stock.

After this happened about the tenth time, I got jack of it and decided the tent would need to be bought sight-unseen. I found a suitable tent, did substantial on-line research, and then sent out about 15 emails, one to each of the tent’s Australian retailers. In the email I simply asked for price and availability of the tent I had in mind.

The first surprise was how long some shops took to reply – in one case, over a week. The second surprise was that most shops just quoted the recommended retail price, and said they didn’t have any in stock but could get them. (Glad I didn’t bother visiting those shops, then.)

However, one dealer, at a relatively remote country location, came back with a good email. He could get the tent no problems, it said. The current model was $XXX (about 15 per cent under recommended retail), but he also had a previous model that broke down rather differently, adding potential versatility in the way it could be carried. Both tents could be sent free freight to wherever I was in Australia. Any questions or advice needed – please email or call.

I rang the next day and discussed in depth the purchase, the criteria, our potential use. The man knew the tent well – he hired them out. He also was an experienced touring cyclist, as well as being very familiar with snow country – the worse conditions for a tent.

We paid by direct bank transfer, got a quick email acknowledgement and a few days later had the tent – direct-shipped not from the shop but from the wholesaler.

I don’t know if where we bought our tent there is a bricks and mortar shop – or he works out of his bedroom. And why would I care? He had the best advice, best price, free freight and direct-shipped from the distributor, saving valuable time.

A retail shop where you can touch and feel the goods has obvious advantages. But the more specialised the goods, the less relevant a retail shop seems to be.

As I said at the beginning, you’d think that by now things would have changed far more than they evidently have…

8 Responses to 'The (lack of) pace in retail change'

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  1. Dave said,

    on May 7th, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Doesn’t your tent experience show a significant change in retailing. You found it was easier to use the internet and email than visit the traditional “bricks and mortar” option that was your only choice fifteen years ago….

    The guy you purchased from is a retailer operating with minimal overheads, therefore able to offer a better price while still maintaining the same or better margins than traditional retailers. This is evidence of a significant shift in retail strategy.

    Change in retail is generally driven by the consumer – if enough people use your method most “traditional” retailers will see decreasing revenue, forcing them to change their strategy to adjust to todays “information age”….

  2. Toddly said,

    on May 7th, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    I suspect your internet use simply put you in contact with a broader range of vendors than you could get to in person. You then found the vendor that suited your needs rather than you suiting theirs.

    I reckon there will be a change as more and more people buy from overseas for vastly cheaper prices than here in Au. That change will be more doors closing for good.

  3. FrugalOne said,

    on May 7th, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    Why should a retailer stock everything and outlay so much money when the customer [scum] just wants to pick your brain and then shop the price

    This is the view from the other side of the fence

    So what did you buy and what did it cost, i too need a lightweight tent



  4. Jim said,

    on May 8th, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Frugalone: I agree that all retailers hate “tyre kickers” but I for one always consider every option available on the market when I buy something. That research consists of both looking at the item in the store if possible plus online browsing.

    If a retail store genuine helps me with their advice then I will buy from them even if their price is higher than online. The higher price is within reason of course; if they are substantially higher and not willing to lower their price to more closely match the competitor’s then they lose the sale. I.e. I would still not pay 50% more than the online store’s price (in the case of a suitcase I’m currently shopping for), no matter how good the service is.

  5. BG said,

    on May 11th, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Forget about tent shops.. What about Bunnings? That could make a whole new column. It’s impressive that this most irritating shop can also be so successful.

  6. Stewart said,

    on May 12th, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    i feel your pain.
    i used to o’nite hike a lot when i was younger. i ended up settling for 2 tarps and a small mosquito netting (especially in Lamington NP).
    retailers are not to blame. they’re there to flog whatever the manufacturer reckons people want. a good retailer will interpret this before you walk into the store (like the chap you found Julian) by buying items he knows will sell. the internet allows more choice, you have to interpret yourself (knowing exactly what you want is half the battle).

  7. Robert said,

    on June 2nd, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    This conversation thread is bizarre. It’s the talk greed. Being in an industry that sells advice we know it takes much money (time in eduction) to deliver the advice and once it’s out of your mouth, the listener has to make the choice to steal it or not (unless you get them to prepay, the way it’s going). By paying for the advice then it allows the advisor to continue the education and continue to advise with newer and better advice and the adviser can always upgrade the retail value of service.

    I read from the original article, plus following threads an expectation for knowledge, even right, to have free knowledge.

    In a loop where the customer demands a product, retail feeds this back to a manufacturer, who designs, produces, then disseminates through the education of suppliers as well as stocking. The product isn’t just what it costs to make, it has to carry all the other overheads to maintain “retail pace”. We consumers are our own enemy, cheating ourselves in the long term to grab short term gain. Shop it around to steal the knowledge and only buy the product.

    We want cheap prices so how does a retailer afford to pay for educated professionals? They get in a uni student, pay them minimum wages and sell product. We tell them to do this as we buy from the lowest bidder. Free advice comes from those who have no value in their advice. Use the internet and the more specialised your need the less experienced advice you will get for free from it. We are on this site because we pay for it and get better then free advice (I believe).
    Buy from people (not company names) who focus on doing what your looking for, who have a passion for what they do and show them committment early to acllow them to give you some.

    Buying from a Fast Moving Consumer Goods business and wanting advice is Bizarre and Greedy. You are the reason for “The (lack of) pace in retail change”

  8. steve j said,

    on January 13th, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    I have recently been trying to aquire the parts for a suspension rebuild/upgrade on an ongoing project car.As a small business owner myself I try to support local suppliers date not one supplier has returned my emails.I phoned one retailer speciallising in autosport parts three times in one week .each time I was promised a prompt reply.I have decided they dont want my no time did I try to beat them down on price .I have since ordered the parts from the US.
    make sense of this example
    poly bushes made in brisbane
    including freight from US $5 cheaper than the only quote i could get here in aust.
    kit included new bolts,thread lock and special grease.none of this is included in local kit.
    I emailed the US supplier for technical support and promptly received precise specs and fitting instructions.
    Businesses spend huge amounts of money on advertising and hire marketing geniuses, but can’t look after the customer on their doorstep.
    reluctantly I will be sourcing all my future parts from my reliable US supplier,delivered to my door.