Australian retail still has a way to go to become world class

It’s been another turbulent month in Australian retail. I think I’ve used that phrase four times in the past six months. Dick Smith, ACCC, Kathmandu, Masters, CEOs coming and going … it’s challenging to keep pace with the huge changes facing our retail sector.

The month’s low note was Target allegedly booking profits against improved trading terms payments made by suppliers to Target in one year just to be recovered by higher prices from suppliers to Target in the following year.

The consistently mid note was Aldi really settling into its South Australian expansion with beautiful new stores that have nothing in common with discount retailing apart from the pleasing low shelf price.

Slate floors, artisan wooded fixtures, stunning lighting, streaming media panels and high quality brands, but their own brands, in shiny new shopping malls.

And the highest note of the week was Solomon Lew being inducted into the World Retail Congress Hall of Fame at an awards ceremony in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, which is home to an astounding 113 malls.

Achieving this recognition is no mean feat and he joins retail dynasties such as the Nordstrom family and IKEA’s patriarch Ingvar Kamprad.

In accepting the Hall of Fame induction, Lew talked about our retailing industry in Australia as being “one of the most vibrant and competitive in the world”.

I kind of agree but see a lot of our current retailers as a “work in progress” versus our US and European fast growth retailers.

Lew went on to say: “A strong retail industry is the lifeblood of a strong economy and society. It has an immense economic and social multiplier effect both before and beyond the point of sale on so many levels.”

I agree 100% but have reservations that our federal, state and local governments truly grasp the importance of the sector.

Lew added: “Retail also provides the opportunity for many of us to express both our creativity and demonstrate that beyond the ‘science’ of retail there is also the subjective but essential ‘art’ of retail – the love of not only ‘touching and feeling’ but also truly understanding your customer, product and the ability to execute with a mix of both intuition and experience.”

That too is the almost unique position of retailing in our very blokey mix of careers in Australia.

At present our high-vis construction boom is creating work for our Aussie blokes, many of whom have come straight off five years on mine sites onto building sites. Same hats, same boots and same high-vis vests. All good.

But for the non-blokey blokes who want to have a career that isn’t boom and bust, that doesn’t mean moving away from family and living in motels and Stayz accommodation each week, for them a career in retail matters.

I keep looking for examples of really consistently well-run training courses in retail amongst Australian retailers. Sadly I can’t find any.

I talk to retail staff in stores and retail trainers and they all say the same thing: “We get about eight hours training a year, four hours is ‘on the till and WHS’ and four hours on ‘some product knowledge usually from a new supplier’.”

One of the previous Retail Hall of Famers is Kip Tindell, co-founder, chairman and chief executive of The Container Store. A small store started in Dallas in 1978 that sold, yep, containers. Plastic ones of every size and shape.

That funny little company was rated amongst the top 100 companies to work for in the US. And it pays its store staff around US$50,000 a year without commission. Why is it so successful that people want to work for it and they are paid well?

Here’s what the website says about training: “Every new employee receives a week of intensive Foundation Training. This training includes information on our company history, Foundation Principles™, safety, selling, merchandising and much more.

In their first year, full-time employees receive 263 hours of training. And, our training is never-ending. We provide product, selling and operations training to all employees – both full- and part-time – on an ongoing basis!”

We have a way to go in Australia if we are to build and sustain a truly world class retailing sector that allows all parts of our society to grow, learn and prosper in a retail career.

Kevin Moore is a retail expert and the chairman of Crossmark Asia Pacific Holdings and Mirador Retail Technology. He is also the founder of TheRoadToRetail.


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