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Watching shoppers snap and walk out

Bill Gordin can spot a "price checker" fairly easily these days, a customer who roams his bike shop not looking to buy but rather trawling for prices to compare with rapacious overseas online websites.

Bill Gordin can spot a "price checker" fairly easily these days, a customer who roams his bike shop not looking to buy but rather trawling for prices to compare with rapacious overseas online websites.

The quick draw of an iPhone to take a photo is also a giveaway.

"You can't stop them," says Mr Gordin, who has been in the retail game for more than 30 years and is chief executive of Bike Force Australia, a bricks-and-mortar chain with 20 bike shops across Australia as well as an online store.

"They will take photos with their iPhone and write down things, they'll come in with a piece of paper, walk around the store ... and then just walk out."

The scene has become commonplace around Australia's shopping strips, and is a constant lament of retailers who feel they are being taken advantage of as consumers use their stores for research but do their shopping online.

There is some hope that the tide might turn as the dollar has sunk 15 per cent against the value of the US dollar since April, crashing through parity to be US90¢ and looking like it will fall further.

This has made goods offered online on mainly US websites suddenly more expensive against the same or similar product bought from an Australian shop or website, the relative price gap is closing and after woeful trading conditions for the past two years retailers are praying this will bring local shoppers back to their doors.

However, economists and online experts have cautioned domestic retailers that a falling Australian dollar might not trigger a big consumer switch to buying local.

This is because it seems it's not only pricing that has hooked Australian consumers on surfing overseas sites for deals.

"There is no doubt that one of the key factors that gets consumers spending online internationally is the relative pricing, but it's also the great range available, which is most often far broader internationally than is available in Australia," said CBA retail analyst Andrew McLennan.

"There are brands you just can't get in Australia, there are ranges you simply can't get in Australia."

NAB senior economist Gerard Burg said the spike in Australians shopping at overseas online sites from 2010 was accompanied by a rally in the Australian dollar from US80¢ to parity.

But it also was accompanied by the proliferation of iPhones and iPads connecting consumers to the online world in greater numbers and, importantly, while actually shopping locally.

Recent research from Ernst & Young shows many Australians don't mind where they buy their goods from. Talk of supporting local online stores is just lip service for many, with almost half of those shoppers surveyed saying they didn't care if a site was overseas or local and that value for money as well as fast and reliable delivery times were more important.

Delivery times are becoming the real killer to local stores.

"A lot of these overseas online players have far better developed online capabilities," Mr McLennan said. "So you end up getting products that you purchased overseas quicker than you can get it from domestic online retailers.

That's something Mr Gordin knows all about.

No matter where the Australian dollar sits, often he can't beat delivery times from online stores in Britain that can ship faster to his own backyard than he can.

In the meantime, he must just grin and bear it as he watches his customers snapping away with their iPhones.

"I'm a consumer as well and I understand why they choose to buy overseas. What we need to do is try to educate them that Australia is now in the throes of being more internationally competitive."

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