Most Australian retailers just don’t get the web. Not many have learnt how to run a multi-channel offer and very few understand the power of email marketing.

As a consequence of market reluctance and the ineptitude of early offers, online shopping remains in infancy. Unlike the Americans, most of our pioneers never strayed far from a department store and great-great-grandma didn’t need to order from a mail order catalogue. Sears or Hammacher Schlemmer (who were around before the Civil War) had no Australian parallel.

One of the few that does it well is Kemenys, a NSW-based $70m plus (and growing) liquor retailer that is a local exemplar of multi-channel retailing. They have a passion for looking after their customers that manifests itself in their speed of response and use of technology to maximise customer intimacy.

Kemenys’ customers arrive in-store or off-site via catalogues, web or to a call centre. Voice recognition software allows a call centre operator to see the customer’s details and purchase history. Regular customers are offered special lines not generally available.

Several retailers use email offers, but most are just an electronic brochure.

Last week, Myer did something that was a little different and much more successful. They ran a viral marketing campaign, and in doing so, demonstrated all the elements necessary to start an epidemic described in Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book The Tipping Point.

To paint the picture; Myer seeded an email into the market that, for a very limited time, offered up to 20% discounts to “Family & Friends”. Our spies report busy stores on the weekend. So why did it work?

Email is quick and it goes to people who can send it on just as quickly, producing a multiplier effect. A couple of mouse clicks and it’s moving on to a dozen others. Some recipients would have been people who habitually forward to hundreds. Only a couple of those connectors in the chain and the email is well away.

The idea of a 20% discount is what Gladwell calls “sticky”. The Family & Friends offer appeared to offer something only to those close to the company. It made the recipient feel that they were in on something a bit special. However, while Myer team members needed to produce their staff discount card, all anyone really had to do was to produce a copy of the email. In reality, the discount was available to anyone with a printer. It made the message stickier, and is an example of a simple message that enough people find irresistible.

The final element in an epidemic is context. No powerful or widespread idea will gain traction unless people are ready to hear it. Myer and its turnaround is starting to fascinate the market. Shoppers are ready for a reason to revisit a store.

A simple email, cast into the winds of the web has followed the three rules for starting a social epidemic. It was a sticky idea that got to enough connectors at a time when they were ready to receive it. Little things can make a big difference. The email campaign crossed a threshold — a tipping point.

The campaign achieved a result that previously would have cost hundreds of thousands in press, catalogues and TVCs. You can expect more of it.

Rob Lake publishes Brandish — Retail Intelligence, a website and fortnightly newsletter