Friday, 19 November 2010

We call it Riding the Gravy Train

Some times you need the point of view of the unattached observer in order to realize what the problems you’ve been facing for years are. The recent AussieCon 4 science fiction conference provided such an opportunity by it having people of like mindedness enter Melbourne and provide me with their input.
John Scalzi, current SFWA president (Science Fiction Writers of America, I believe), put it bluntly in his blog here:
If I had to mark down Australia for anything, I suppose it would be that day-to-day incidentals there are markedly more expensive; for example, the 20-ounce bottle of Coke Zero I would pay $1.20 for here is $3.50 there, even when factoring in the exchange rate for the Australian dollar, and a candy bar that’s eighty five cents here is at least twice that there. I think if I were living in that country, I would do a lot of buying in bulk.
Then there’s the Israeli friend who visited me during the convention. In similar fashion, he observed the local inventory of Levis jeans being significantly dearer to American prices. The models were different too: for example, the classic Levis 501 model does not exist as far as Australia is concerned; it is as if Levis chose to divide and conquer Australia from the rest of the world. Also noted was the rarity of finding t-shirts selling for a single digit dollar figures at Melbourne's shops.
What do I make of these aliens’ views on Australian consumerism?

The funny thing is that I think they’re right and wrong. You can buy things for cheap in Australia, the problem is you need to buy them at specific places and at specific times. Perhaps the example most familiar to Aussies is the Myer sale, Myer being probably the most famous department store chain in Australia: many people wait things out for the six monthly sale to start before daring to buy at Myer, but when the sale is on they rush for it.
Yet Myer is an extreme example because I am of the opinion Myer is too expensive even during sales season. Let’s look at food shopping instead: Go to your average supermarket and from time to time the prices will bite you, but that is exactly why we have been doing the bulk of our grocery shopping at Aldi for a few years now. It may lack some of the convenience and variety offered by mainstream supermarkets but some of its products are of very high quality and most of them are very reasonably priced.
Over the years we have developed a list of places we go to if we want to buy particular items. There’s Aldi for groceries and a market for fresh food items, there’s MSY or CPL or CentreCom for computers and there’s Best & Less for cheap baby clothing. More and more, though, I am finding myself annoyed at the severe mark-ups Aussie shops take, especially given the current strength of the Aussie Dollar; the result is that more and more of my shopping is now online, including shopping that is less web traditional (if traditional web shopping can be said to exist in the first place; how many of us bought stuff over the Internet ten years ago?):
  • Books: Most of my book purchases are now direct Kindle digital downloads, but when I want to buy a hard copy that would usually come from either The Book Depository, Borders online, Fishpond or Amazon as opposed to a brick and mortar shop. The price difference between Borders’ shops and their own website is reason enough to stop buying at a shop, especially when they hardly ever have the book I’m looking for.
  • Video games: One can find the occasional bargain on eBay, but for consistently good prices I buy my games at ozgameshop. The odd thing is that this is a British website (with free shipping to Australia) that still manages to be much cheaper than anything in Australia.
  • T-shirts: I can find the exact designs I like over the web, and I’m very picky about my t-shirts. Why on earth would I want to spend the same or more at a normal department store in order to have what everyone else is wearing?
  • Clothes: Aside from purchases such of cheap covers for my iPhone or my Kindle, I have started using eBay to buy the exact clothes I want. The Levis 505 jeans I thought of buying for a while? Got them for $42, new and delivered from the USA; in Australia the equivalent model (504) sells for $75 during the Myer sale. Or the GAP cargo pants I’ve been looking for way too long? Got them new and delivered from the USA for $40; the equivalent cargo pants I used to buy in Australia from Industrie sell for $100. By the way, a note to GAP: you are only shooting yourself in the leg by limiting your website to American users.
I can continue with further examples but I will finish with the one I’m engaged with currently. A few months ago I’ve mistakenly placed my [empty] camera bag in a water fountain, causing it to smell of mold. Mold, in case you didn’t know, is one of your camera lenses’ biggest enemies, sending me looking for new camera bags.
After thinking a lot about it, I decided my preferred camera bag is the Fastpack 250 from Lowepro, a backpack designed to carry an SLR, a laptop and their auxiliary equipment. I can get it new on eBay from various international shops for as little as $98, yet I feel bad about it.
I feel bad about it because when I went to check the bag out for fit at Michael’s, a big Melbourne photography shop stocking quite a lot of stuff, I wasn’t only able to touch the Fastpack 250 and verify it suits my needs (to a level much higher than photos on the Internet ever could), I was also easily able to try it out against other models and check that it fits in the airport hand luggage "template" station they had there so I could tell whether I can use this bag as hand luggage on both domestic and international flights.
Michael’s offered me great service from start to finish, yet does that service earn them the right to charge me more than $60 extra over their web competition? I’m happy to pay reasonably more for better service, yet I am not sure that in this case $60 can be deemed reasonable. Instead it seems to me as if the bigger Australian shops, as they keep growing bigger and driving the smaller players out of business, are running a seemingly cooperative campaign to skim the milk off the ignorant Aussie consumer to the point where finding a bargain is a phenomenon relegated to the realm of the exotic. Shopping in Australia is getting more expensive by the day during times it should be getting cheaper.
I refuse to take part in this game; I’m getting my stuff over the web.

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