Poor Gerry Harvey. It really is incredibly hard to make a buck when the government, your suppliers and, most of all, your own consumers refuse to do the right thing.
Harvey and other business people moaning about the multi-speed economy and worrying about the government’s light-touch spending cuts — and the commentators who echo their views — should do more reading.
First, no one can point to a time when the economy grew evenly across all sectors. The performance of the economy has always seen some sectors/industries gain and others lose. Have a look at the figures in the budget papers, Reserve Bank forecasts, the latest OECD forecast for Australia, and especially the speeches from senior officials from the Reserve Bank and Treasury: the explanations for the current unevenness in the economy, especially retailing, are to be found there.
For example, the latest OECD forecast says the Australian savings rate will be 10.4% this year, 10.3% next year and 10.5% in 2013. But private consumption will be a solid 3.3% this year, and 3.2% in the next two years, while total domestic demand will be 4.5% this year, 4.4% next year and 4.0% in 2013. By both measures (the latter includes stockbuilding, which includes the resources sector), the economy will be performing solidly for the next two years, barring any implosion of the eurozone. By that measure, it should be sunny times for domestic consumption driven sectors, such as retailing and some services.
And yet we know that some retail sectors — Harvey Norman, Myer, David Jones, JB Hi-Fi, Premier Investments and a host of retailers in consumer electronics, clothing, footwear and household goods — are doing it tough. The high Australian dollar isn’t helping move these goods, despite making them cheaper, nor is the high level of consumer caution and savings.
And yet other retail sectors are doing well, as we showed earlier this year. According to eBay, 64% of their biggest online retailers believe their sales will increase by an average of 31% this Christmas period. And car sales this year will go close to a million units, which is a boom. Overseas travel is slowing, but still going well.
Besides the higher savings rate, the other major influence on consumer activity is the changed nature of consumer preference, as Phillip Lowe, the RBA’s head of economics, pointed out in a speech in September:
“The second longer-term change is a decline in the share of spending on goods and an increase in the share of spending on (non-housing) services. For example, in the early 1980s, spending on clothing, footwear, household equipment and furniture totalled around 14% of total household expenditure. Today, the figure is just over 8%. In contrast, there have been substantial rises in the shares of total expenditure accounted for by health, education and a range of household and personal services. While these increases are partly explained by a rise in the relative prices of many of these services, the volume of consumption of these services has also increased. These broad trends can be seen across the entire income distribution, although there are some subtle differences across incomes. The decline in the share of spending on clothing and footwear, for example, is evident across all income groups. Conversely, households in all income quintiles are spending a higher share on services, with the largest increases evident in expenditure on recreation services, such as pay TV and the internet.”
Lowe also pointed out that spending on housing had risen in the same period from just under 13% in the early 1980s to 18% of total household expenditure. That in itself would have an impact on retail, without other changes. And the bulk of that increase has been higher interest charges because of higher prices and bigger loans, meaning the spending involved would not have been available to be competed for by retailers. Banks got it.
And Gerry Harvey, while complaining about the consumer and how tough it has become in products such as TVs, neglects to point out that it’s the manufacturers (aided to a point by the high dollar) slashing prices that is damaging his business. TV prices are still falling as Sony, Samsung and LG battle for domination in the global TV market, despite saturation and the failure of gimmicks like 3D TV for the time being. The big three makers are either losing money or making a small profit in TVs (and associated products), but so far none have blinked, admitted defeat and started closing down their businesses. In the meantime, TV prices are falling and the high value of the dollar is imposing additional downward pressure on Harvey’s margins.
Consumers know TV prices will get cheaper and are postponing purchases, particularly now that the digital switchover boom is ending.
And don’t forget Harvey is also a property owner, not a retailer — he takes his profits in rents, charges and other fees from his franchisees, whereas JB Hi-Fi, David Jones and others make the bulk of their money from selling things and taking the margin directly.
Gerry’s also cranky with consumers not merely because they’re increasingly shopping elsewhere and shifting to services, but because they now spend too much time online. We’ll regret the arrival of the internet in 10-15 years’ time, Gerry said yesterday. Gerry is of course extrapolating his own feelings onto the rest of us.
For decades, Harvey grew rich gorging on the superprofits delivered by being a gatekeeper in the retail sector, exploiting consumers’ ignorance of the vast margins Australian retailers were adding on to imported goods. The internet has exposed those margins, sending a competitive shock through much of the retail sector. That’s one of the reasons his business model is now under pressure. Now retailers have to compete, and innovate, like normal businesses.
But like every other gatekeeper, all those years of profiting on consumers’ ignorance, lack of choice and willingness to pay over the odds have wrecked Gerry’s ability to innovate.
He’s still pretty damn good at whingeing though.