From Golden Age to the Silicon Age of retail

There’s little or no jobs growth in physical retail any more. Last month, Toys ‘R’ Us became the latest large retailer to put hundreds of jobs at risk. This month $1 in every $20 we spent was online. The Silicon Age of retail is here. 

Sam Walton, Archie Norman, Howard Schulz, the Albrecht brothers, Ingvar Kamprad and, latterly, Ron Johnson: through the 1980s and early 2000s, these names became synonymous with successful and growing retail throughout the last international Golden Age of physical retail. These founding leaders of Walmart, ASDA, Starbucks, Aldi, Ikea and Apple Retail successfully built world class retailers.

In Australia, our list of founding retailers of that era would include Gerry Harvey, Richard Uechtritz and Jack Cowin; regionally we’d recognise Fred Shahin in South Australia. These retail business founders created Harvey Norman, JB HiFi and Hungry Jacks. Fred Shahin founded Peregrine in Adelaide, which owns the OTR convenience brand and much more.

The important thing about all of these retailers is that they created hundreds of thousands of jobs in every community they retailed in. Moreover, the jobs they created were at every level of life in those communities. From hourly-paid part-time and casual jobs through to store and regional managers, and up to very highly paid executives. Physical retail creates a wide geographical spread of jobs on a wide range of income bands.

You can launch a product into a country with a single country manager, but to retail you have to get on the ground and into the communities. Well, you did, until the last Golden Age of retail was replaced by the Silicon Age of retail.

I’m a big fan of change: it drives renewal and improvement, and opportunities for the young and young in mind. However, in that positive process it also delivers negative outcomes to many. Stagnation in wage growth and career opportunity, less diversity and fun at work, and eventually job losses. As an individual, these challenges are workable if you live close to a major town or city; if you’re out in the country, however, each time a store closes five equivalent full-time employees (or maybe 10 part time employees) and their families’ sources of income are taken away.

Our key need in the Silicon Age of retail is to create online related jobs and opportunities away from our crowded cities. Everyone who lives in the country loves the choice, ease and low prices that online retail brings. But if you want to buy stuff online and live in the country you need a job to pay for it.

Regional freight airports operating 24-hours a day, logistics parks and data centres can all be built away from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. My hope is that, together, business and government leaders in regional communities will shape plans and policies to create infrastructure and related jobs in our regions. Only then will the Silicon Age of retail be truly inclusive of all its stakeholders.

NOW READ: Why Amazon’s Australian geoblock won’t cramp shoppers’ style


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