Online Shopping in Australia

11 Dec

One of the first things you’ll realise upon moving to Australia is that there is no Amazon Australia. Well, crap. Now where are you supposed to find all those random things you need and want?

Anytime you move to a new country, it will take you a while to figure out which stores sell what. I mean, there’s no reason why an American would associate the name “Bunning’s” with home improvement goods anymore than an Australian would associate that with the name “Menards”. Nor does the name “Dick Smith’s” convey electronics anymore than the name “Best Buy” does.

So naturally, instead of going from store to store, asking where you can find this or that item, it just makes more sense to find it online. Save yourself the embarrassment of asking salespeople for an item they obviously don’t sell. Or haven’t heard of, because you asked for it by the “wrong” name. (I’ll never forget the time H asked a salesgirl at Dick’s in America if they sold “grid iron” balls. She looked at him like he’d just grown a second nose.)

But not only is there no Amazon in Australia, it seems like online shopping just hasn’t really caught on here, yet. Granted, online shopping sales are growing rapidly in Australia, but unlike in America where you expect every business to have an online shopping portal, that’s not always the case in Australia.

While most of the big box stores now have online shopping as an option (though the service you’ll get varies widely- don’t expect anything as cool as Zappos, for instance), smaller stores do not.

In America, every small business worth its salt has a website and those selling tangible goods almost all have online shopping options. Even the most hole-in-a-wall online shops use reliable shopping cart technologies and accept credit cards, even if they only do so through PayPal or Google Checkout, instead of a dedicated merchant service provider. It’s so easy now to get a website with an integrated shopping cart and payment module that there is no excuse not to have one.

But Australia is a different story. Let me give you an example.

I was nearly done with my Christmas cards when H spilled water on some of them. (Yeah, I was pretty mad about that!) Now I have to remake them and I wanted to get the same scrapbooking papers I had used before. My local (as in, 35 minutes away) craft store was sold out.

So I got online and went to the manufacturer’s website. They don’t sell direct to public; they only wholesale. But they did have a list of all their stockists in Australia. Most of these companies didn’t have a website at all. Of the 20% or so that did, fewer than half had an online store. Two of these stores claimed to have the items in stock that I needed, so I proceeded to place an order online, only to reach the payment page and be told that the only payment option was to “pay by phone”. As in, I have to call them, tell them what I just ordered, and give them all my shipping and payment details over the phone, repeating myself several times to make sure they’ve got it right. Their online order form didn’t even send them a copy of my order. (Suppose I hadn’t felt like calling them. They would have no way to know they just lost a sale and would need to follow up with a potential customer.)

As it turned out, they didn’t have the items in stock after all, so I ended up going through the same rigamarole with the second store in South Australia. Again, the only option was to pay by phone. I called them on a Friday to express my interest in making a purchase and had to explain to them what I wanted. They then called me back Monday morning to confirm my order. I doubt I’ll get any kind of shipping confirmation by email. It was so much hassle that I never would have ordered from them if I wasn’t desperate and probably never will again. Is it really so hard to set up PayPal, people?!?!?

I’d love to say that was an isolated incident, but it wasn’t. Even Spotlight, Australia’s largest craft supply chain store, operates like this. Instead of actually ordering online, you can only browse their latest catalogue and then fill out an order form and send it in. They then contact you, some days later, to arrange payment over the phone or by mail. Did I mention that this is a major chain store?

With it being so easy to set up basic websites with shopping features, one has to wonder why it just hasn’t caught on here the way it has in America. Especially because sitting in traffic for hours and fighting for a parking spot just to go to the shops is not anybody’s idea of a good time. Frankly, going shopping here is something I find stressful, frustrating, and unpleasant. If I don’t have to try on the product or check an expiration date, I’d much rather have it mailed to me.

This article may shed some light on it. The author mentions America’s “catalogue culture”, something Australia has never had. Where Americans are used to mail orders, Australians are not.

Furthermore, every Australian city is oversaturated with all the big box stores. For example, the Sydney metro area contains about 11 Myer stores and about 19 JB Hi-Fi stores. In comparison, Boston (also a metro area of about 4.5 million people), has only six Macy’s stores and nine Best Buy stores. Traffic in Boston is probably just as bad or worse than traffic in Sydney, but your odds of randomly passing any given big box store in Sydney are greater than they are in Boston. So if you live in Boston, it might just be easier to order online.

In spite of all that, though, Australians are turning to online shopping in greater numbers and I’m convinced that the biggest obstacle to bigger and better online shopping experiences in Australia is the retailers themselves, not the customers. For reasons I cannot fathom, businesses here seem to reluctant to engage in online sales. (As a former small business owner, this boggles my mind- why would you turn up your nose at a way to increase sales without having to increase your costs?)

So what do Australians do if they can’t get what they want here? They buy from overseas. Ebay and Amazon were the two most popular online retailers among Australians last year. (Amazon, take the hint and get a distribution center here already!) Meanwhile, Myer and other retailers are blaming the “unfairness” of overseas online shopping for their own weak performances and demanding the government do something about it.

Here’s a newsflash, Myer: People don’t like shopping at your stores because you sell overpriced junk from China, your staff is rude, and your stores poorly laid out. I’m convinced that if an in-store shopping experience were more pleasant and convenient and the pricing was more competitive, people would gladly forgo paying high international shipping rates and waiting days or weeks to get their products in favour of paying GST in a brick-and-mortar store where they can get their products immediately.

My hope for Australian retail is two-fold. First, I’d love it if there were more and better online shopping options within Australia. I’d like to see modern webstores that work well and are easy to use, with good customer service. Secondly, I’d like the shopping experience in physical stores to be more pleasant and the prices more in line with what I’m willing to pay for a service. (I know I’m spoiled by long exposure to American pricing, but I don’t like feeling ripped off.)

Frankly, I think if Australian retailers can’t get with the program, they deserve to go under. No company is entitled to remain in business when they refuse to give customers what they want.

8 Responses to “Online Shopping in Australia”

  1. Cosette December 11, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    Excellent post. On the bright side, it appears Amazon is coming to Oz:

    • housewifedownunder December 13, 2012 at 11:00 am #

      They’ve been saying that for a long time. I’ll believe it when I see it!

  2. muddledmom December 12, 2012 at 12:19 am #

    I don’t know what I’d do without Amazon! There are certain stores I shop frequently (Target, do you have a Target??) and life would be much more difficult without them!

    • housewifedownunder December 13, 2012 at 11:05 am #

      We do have a Target, though it is not owned by the company that owns the American Target. They use the same name and logo and they sell similar stuff, though. But the American Targets usually have decent electronics sections and grocery sections, whereas the Australian Target is mostly clothes and maybe some kids’ toys and such. We also have K-Mart and a chain called Big W, which has been completely ripped off Walmart, minus the grocery section. There’s also a site called that is trying to be the Australian Amazon, but it’s really just not as good. The selection isn’t as broad. It is definitely more difficult shopping without all those retail behemoths we are used to in America!

  3. Wendy December 15, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    We are moving over to Melbourne in January from London and I can already imagine that the lack of online shopping is going to be one of my biggest annoyances! It would be amazing if Amazon actually started there sometime soon. Some good news I just discovered – if you are looking for women’s and men’s fashion delivers to Australia free!

  4. Cristin December 28, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    Found your blog on Expats Blog recently and have been enjoying reading your posts. I can so completely relate to the online shopping. I’ve actually noticed that a lot of stores here have only a fraction of their inventory online. I mean, if they have it in the store, can’t they also sell it to me online? I’m trying to stock up for a baby on the way, and the retailers here are not making it easy for me to part with my money, despite my strong willingness to do so! Most of my shopping has been done in the States, even with the cost of international shipping. (P.S. – Loved your Christmas cards!)

    • housewifedownunder January 9, 2013 at 3:17 pm #

      Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my posts.

      My husband and I have been talking about starting a family and I got to thinking about the ordeal of buying baby stuff eventually. It is all so expensive! And it’s just so difficult to find what you want online. I can definitely appreciate buying stateside, just because it’s simpler! And a lot of times, even with the cost of shipping, it ends up not being that much more than buying Australian.

  5. Lou Ashton August 5, 2013 at 4:45 am #

    I totally agree. It makes my blood boil when I hear Australian retailers complain about unfair competition from international retailers when they themselves are so slow moving in areas where they can make a difference.

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