Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mouse is mightier than the stores

Well-mannered newspapers don't spend a lot of time talking about themselves. Even so, you've no doubt heard that the future of newspapers - though not news or journalism - is under great challenge from the arrival of the internet.

Much classified advertising has moved to the net and now some display advertising is going.

Some readers are moving to the net, smartphones and tablets such as the iPad.

As you may imagine, these are anxious times for newspaper managers and print journalists.

It's dawned on me, however, that what the internet is doing to the media is just for openers.

You wait until you see what it does to retailing over the next decade or two.

Retailers have been complaining lately about people buying more stuff on the internet - and thus being able to avoid paying goods and services tax on purchases of less than $1000 - but I doubt if this does much to explain their present weak sales.

A report by Southern Cross Equities shows that by last year local online retailers had a 4 per cent share of total retail sales.

This was up from 2 per cent in 2005, but it's still not a lot.

Yet come back in 10 years and it may be a very different story.

Buying things in shops has many advantages. You're able to see, touch and even try on what there is to choose from. You can seek further information from a live human. There's less worry about the security of your payment and being able to return goods that prove unsatisfactory.

So why would people buy online? Partly because, if you know what you want, it's very convenient. You avoid having to find a park at crowded shopping malls and avoid unwanted human contact.

But a new study by Ben Irvine and colleagues at the Australia Institute, The Rise and Rise of Online Retail, finds that online shoppers give ''saving money'' as their primary reason. ''Bargain hunters'' outnumber ''mall haters'' five to one.

When bricks-and-mortar retailers also run a website they tend to charge the same prices on both. If they didn't, more of their customers would switch to online. Add the cost of postage (and ignore the cost in time and money of travelling to their shop) and it's often not particularly attractive to buy from local retailers online unless you find one offering a much lower price.

It's when people browsing prices on the internet compare prices being offered on overseas sites that they find large savings, sometimes up to 50 per cent - savings that make the freight costs well worth paying. This is true for books, DVDs, music, shoes, electronic goods and much else.

People are amazed to find that global corporations are selling the identical goods at quite different prices in different countries.

As a very broad generalisation, prices tend to be low in the United States and high in Australia, with British prices somewhere in between.

Our retailers and others try to justify these differences by reference to freight costs, differences in taxes, the high Aussie dollar and much else, but they never can.

Many people imagine prices are based on the cost of manufacture and distribution, plus a reasonable mark-up. But, in economists' speak, this is just looking at the supply curve.

You also have to take account of the demand curve, which shows the prices customers are
''willing to pay''.

Taking this into account means prices are set at the highest level ''the market will bear''. Charging different prices in different markets (whether those markets are in different countries or are different segments of the same country's market) is a long-standing business strategy.

You maximise your profit by charging whatever price - high or low - is the most the people in each market or market segment are willing to pay.

Economists call this ''price discrimination'' and regard it as perfectly reasonable.

Now here's something the economists won't tell you: people are willing to pay higher prices in Australia because that's what they're used to. People are willing only to pay lower prices in the US because that's what they're used to.

As every economics textbook will tell you, however, the trick to successful price discrimination is you have to be able to keep the markets separate, otherwise people in high-price markets will switch to buying in lower-price markets.

Guess what? The internet has broken down the geographic (and knowledge) separation between national markets. So the game is up for country-based price discrimination. It will take a while but, as e-commerce spreads, our greater ability and willingness to buy from countries with lower prices will force Australian retail prices down, particularly website prices. (The day may come when people who want personal service in a shop will have to pay a premium above the internet price.)

This will be an enormously painful process for retailers and their employees (welcome to the club). And also for the firms that own and rent out retail space.

It will be painful because it's wrong to imagine Australian retailers charging twice as much for the identical product as US retailers charge are therefore making twice the profit.

Why not? Because, over the many decades this price difference has existed, Australian retailers' cost structures have adjusted to fit (just as broadsheet newspapers' staffing levels increased to absorb most of the ''rivers of gold'' flowing from their classified ads). In particular, the rent paid by retailers would be much higher.

The internet is changing the world to make it work more like economics textbooks have always assumed it worked.

It's intensifying price competition over other forms of competition, such as marketing, and slowly bringing to reality a concept beloved of economists: ''the law of one [worldwide] price''.