Retail still in the doldrums despite glimmers of hope

Just as well Paul Zahra is a retailer instead of a banker - otherwise the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission might be wondering if he was attempting a little price signalling while announcing disappointing sales figures.

Just as well Paul Zahra is a retailer instead of a banker - otherwise the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission might be wondering if he was attempting a little price signalling while announcing disappointing sales figures.

David Jones' Zahra isn't the first shopkeeper to let the market know what he thinks about that nasty habit of discounting. Even while announcing a "Super Saturday" sale, Myer's Bernie Brookes seemed to be warning Target not to pull the trigger on a discount war. Brookes also came out as a fan of a weaker dollar, claiming there would be more pluses than minuses for Myer.

That argument seems to come down to making international online shopping a little less attractive, but a weaker Australian dollar equally makes prices on imported stuff at Myer - the vast majority of it - a little less attractive, too. Or maybe a softer currency could become an excuse for prices at the troubled discretionary department stores stabilising and inching higher.

That's what Zahra is rather desperately hoping, even while saying he expects everyone else to be slicing prices on excess winter clothing.

So we have David Jones signalling Myer, which is signalling Target, which is busy signalling distress as the new CEO works out what the chain should be after his two predecessors let it wander in the face of the resurgence by Australia's biggest department stores: Kmart and Big W.

And that's why, for all the publicity they garner, David Jones and Myer aren't nearly as important as their coverage might indicate. Far from representing the mindset of the Australian consumer and the overall health of Australian retailing, the two mid-tier department stores represent themselves as they struggle to update their 19th-century business models.

They are the middle-order players in the department store space, which itself is the smallest of the Australian Bureau of Statistics' six retail categories. Myer's 0.4 per cent lift in April-quarter like-for-like sales last week was greeted as good news, holding out the possibility of recording its first full financial year of sales gains since 2007. Yes, 0.4 per cent - a shop assistant's sneeze. And never mind Monday's announcement that DJs' like-for-like sales went backwards by 3.4 per cent.

Meanwhile, both David Jones and Myer try to make the most of their online sales picking up - doubling, says DJs, up 200 per cent, says Myer - but those percentages are from a very low base and they remain unprofitable.

I glimpsed a "unique browsers" graph for the 2012 calendar year that showed David Jones pretty much flat throughout, Myer picking up a little and The Iconic soaring far above them. The Iconic is an Australian e-tailer - not one of those nasty foreigners avoiding GST - and works on convenience, not price.

But The Iconic doesn't make a profit either while it's busy buying customers. With private equity backers and founded by a couple of Boston Consulting alumni, the business plan could well be to build the brand and then offload it to either one of the two obvious local candidates struggling in cyberspace or one of the foreign retailers that relish our market - companies who think Australian consumers are just fine and far from being on strike.

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