As it is in many a part of the world, fashion retail in Australia is in trouble. So much so that some commentators have stated that the future will see the death of retail. Personally I see that as a melodramatic: retail has existed for millennia and isn’t about to disappear. Rather, I firmly believe that the issue, and the debate that comes with it, is better viewed through the lens of ‘new versus old’. In much the same way that we recognise that, while there’s new media and old media, some form of media will continue to exist, so too must we recognise that there’s Old Retail and New Retail. And Old Retail doesn’t mean a store comprised of bricks and mortar, in much the same way that Old Media isn’t restricted to print. In fact, it’s all about the attitude.

Case in point: Paris’ Colette. With one store in a sole city of the world, it should be facing the same crisis as many of its retail counterparts. Nothing could be further from the truth. While others opine their plummeting sales figures, Colette is instead announcing a collaboration with Aston Martin. Facing the same odds as every other retail, Colette has stayed relevant, stayed cool. They’ve got the right attitude.

Slowly other retailers are waking up to that fact.

fashion retail old new

But I caution you, it’s slow.

I concentrate here on Australia’s largest retailers as they serve as a perfect example of reacting too slowly. Far removed from the rest of the world, Australia’s fashion retail has faced little in the way of competition over the past decades. If you were to take the world’s largest fast-fashion stores as an index of how well developed a market is, you’d find that fashion retail in Australia is hugely under-developed: despite the physical size of the country it is home to only two Zara stores, Topshop is yet to open, and H&M have been noted as saying they’ll never venture this far from home.

And where competition is low, complacency is rife.

Yet the internet changed a key factor in that statement: it raised competition. Suddenly, the Australian shopper, like shoppers everywhere in the world, had other options. Options that gave him or her broader choice and cheaper prices. And like the music industry did in the face of Napster, EMule, and everything else you used to fill your iPod, the largest players in Australia’s fashion industry sat by idly as it happend.

Well that’s not entirely true. Some of Australia’s big fashion retailers did do something. The country’s large department stores invested millions in renovations despite the fact that customers were overwhelmingly citing poor customer service, and not early 20th Century architecture, as a key factor in their shopping elsewhere. Other retailers, the ones who seem the most unsure about their place in the world, threw their hands up in the air and demanded the government tax online shoppers at a punitive rate, all in order to force customers to return to Old Retail.

Few were willing to recognise where the core problems lay. They weren’t willing to adapt, to change. They liked the good old days. They weren’t willing to adjust their attitude.

An adjustment in attitude is precisely what Old Retail needs if it wants to survive. Old Media are slowly learning this lesson; they’re looking at what New Media is doing right and they’re experimenting with the same concepts. Old Retail must follow suit. And quickly. Much more quickly than the news that saw me put finger to keyboard to hammer out this piece:

One of Australia’s top-two retailers, Myer, has announced they’ll be offering customers free shipping through their online store.

Over a decade since the dot-com bust, and more than two decades since the invention of e-commerce, Myer have finally begun to take it seriously. Or they’ve at least finally decided to match the offer that so many of their competitors have been making for many a season.

It’s a start, but a slow one. And there’s a lesson for all Old Retail in this. Adapt or die.

We’re not facing the death of retail, we’re facing the death of old retail and the rise of new retail. Thankfully.

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