Another day, another dose of retail disaster p-rn, this time about Retravision. At Fairfax, which seems to specialise in this particular subgenre, there was even a long table of retail closures and sundry quotes about how dismal everything is. It’s getting to the ritual stage.

This is an important story because retail remains our second biggest employer. As we’ve consistently tried to explain, what’s happening in retail is far more complicated than merely the impact of a higher dollar and cautious consumers, particularly because the story is different depending on where you look — food, services and new cars are performing strongly, traditional department stores, clothing and footwear and books are in trouble.

And Fairfax in particular ignore what is happening at Apple shops in Australia. Hundreds of millions of dollars and profits a year as Australians spend on iPads, iPhones and the other iThings. And, if the stories now emerging from Asia and the US are accurate, there’s the 5th generation of iPhone that will be available later in the year that will further drag sales from the likes of JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman.

What’s happening in retail is a smaller-scale version of what happened to manufacturing in the early 1990s. Back then, three vast forces combined to smash manufacturing jobs: the long-term decline in Australian manufacturing, the early nineties recession, and the Hawke government’s economic reform decisions, removal of tariffs. From its peak in August 1989, when it employed more than 1,160,000 workers, manufacturing lost more than 120,000 jobs in less than three years. For retail, it’s the internet, a secular change in Australian saving and spending habits and the Chinese government’s reform decisions, which have driven its appetite for our minerals.

Those forces are driving economic restructuring in Australia every bit as much as any decisions we may make. The internet and the high dollar are stripping traditional retail of the protection that enabled it to overcharge Australian consumers for generations, every bit as effectively as Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and John Button stripped manufacturing of protection.

The difference this time around is that the broader economic environment is more conducive to reform: monetary policy is controlled by an independent Reserve Bank, unemployment is low and the industrial relations system provides far greater flexibility than the pre-enterprise bargaining system in which the last recession occurred. And unlike manufacturing, which simply shed jobs, retailing has seen jobs shift dramatically within the sector.

For example, since the 1980s, through until last decade, food retailing was, literally, flat in terms of jobs growth: the number of Australians in retail food was between 120,000-130,000 people; that is, that subsector formed a shrinking part of the retail and the overall workforce. Then, suddenly, in late 2005, it began growing, and growing, and growing, barely even interrupted by the financial crisis.

It now employs more than 180,000 people. In the same period, regular store-based retailing has lost 30,000 jobs. And bear in mind many foods are GST-free, meaning the growing subsector of retail generates less GST revenue than the declining subsector.

It’s not that these issues are new. The Reserve Bank started pointing out in late 2010 and throughout 2011 that Australians were changing their spending patterns (property is taking more and more is being spent on services). The same pressures are being exerted on the banks, which are facing weak demand for loans from housing in particular. But, unlike retailers, the big four banks have the market position to protect profit margins, for the time being.

Another key difference is that, so far, the government has been unwilling to intervene to assist the retail industry. That’s partly because internal job shifts mean the overall decline in the retail workforce — it’s currently about 40,000 jobs below its pre-GFC peak of 1.25 million — has been relatively muted. It’s also because retail, like the textile, clothing and footwear industry, lacks the union heft and political appeal that manufacturing has; when employment in retail falls, it tends to be young women who lose their part-time jobs, and neither the media nor politicians are particularly interested in that demographic from an economic point of view.

The result is likely to be a quicker shake-out and rationalisation of retail than some parts of manufacturing have had. Look at the automotive sector — more than 20 years on, we’re still arguing over the level of assistance for car manufacturers, one of the most heavily unionised and protected sectors in the country.

At some point, the media outlets that regularly peddle retail disaster p-rn might begin to understand that their story is more complicated, and much more interesting, than the simplistic doom-laden narratives they’re offering.

Peter Fray

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