A daily dose of NPR usually quells my homesickness, I used to listen regularly back home. Thank you, streaming internet. Yesterday, Morning Edition ran a story about Australian retailers attempting to cope with the massive numbers of Australians buying clothes, books, and other consumer goods online. In retaliation, an Australian sports outfitter has started charging a “fitting fee,” to the tune of $50 to fit a pair of ski boots, reports a local paper, The Australian.
Let me tell you a story. Remember I’m a transplanted American in Australia, speaking primarily to other Americans, or at least non-Australian English speakers. I’m relating my own personal experiences which may not be the same as others. If your experience is different, I invite you to comment freely.
I moved to Australia right out of college. I had college kid clothes. I got married. I got pregnant. I faced finding a temporary job if I could. Several months pregnant, I started looking for “work” clothes, suitable for temping in an office in my condition. This would have been a daunting task if I were still in Austin or Houston which were my shopping “home turfs.” By Home Turf I mean I would know which store to go to and how much I could reasonably be expected to pay. This time I found myself on the other side of the world.
I searched. Did I mention the sizing difference here? Without pregnancy, I went from a size 2-4 to a size 8-10 overnight, and I was not happy about the difference.
And searched for decent clothing but usually came home in tears of frustration. I gave up, didn’t find a job, and had a baby. Four months after she was born, I started working in my current job. Everyone dresses fairly professionally, though creativity in dress is appreciated. Up to that point, most of my sewing experience came from theatre and special occasion sewing- I never thought to make my own clothes. I combed the malls looking for passable work clothes and turned up very little.
I would walk into a store that looked promising based on its window displays. Immediately someone appeared at my elbow, accosting me. I know they thought they were showing good customer service, but I always felt a little upset and had to fight myself not to exit the store immediately. I can’t get used to being accosted every time I enter a store here, it happened just today and I left immediately because I found it so revolting. It’s a cultural difference, but one I can’t seem to get past. It’s like the person is so nice and talks to you, you feel like you have to buy something.
I’d walk into a store that looked like it might have ok work clothes. Once I got rid of the sales person, I’d spend some time looking at colors and cuts. Even back home in the U.S., I despaired of finding clothes that I liked so I never went out expecting much and just bought what I could. Worse, as I looked for work clothes I recognized trends from when I was in highschool dished up as the latest thing. On top of that, I couldn’t seem to find good quality fabrics. I’d rub shirts between my fingers and put the shirt back on the rack in disgust.
Eventually, I gave in. I needed clothes, any clothes, desperately and vowed to take whatever I could get. I remember buying a few knit tops from a place called Katie’s, another called Country Road and from Myer, which is comparable to Macy’s. I trusted Myer. The store smells like Macy’s and looks like Macy’s. Mom shops at Macy’s- so Myer felt a little familiar. I paid about $40 each for tops I knew I could buy back home for $15-$20 and sucked it up. After all, I’m not in Texas anymore, right? I wasn’t shopping sales or looking for bargains, but still.
Those shirts got two or three good wearings. I remember so well because they propelled me to make my own clothes. Then they started pilling in the wash, and absorbing every funky odor imaginable. I couldn’t believe it. $40 for a few wears? Really?!!
That’s what it’s like to shop here, Americans. I thank Australian clothes retailers for pushing me into seriously sewing for myself. It was a weird transition period for me stylistically- I’d wear shirts I’d now consider wadders mixed with smelly pilly overpriced things for a while, but thankfully no one seems to hold that against me now.
With that experience behind me, I can completely understand why Australians would buy overseas. I understand and applaud it. If you can get something vastly cheaper and of better quality, why wouldn’t you buy it where you could get it?
A few months ago, the Aussie dollar reached parity with the American dollar. Australians are turning to the internet for purchases. The Australian dollar goes further in the U.S. for better quality than it does here. The retailing establishment has been so devastated by this that they lobbied the government to impose a tax on goods bought that way. The government said no dice, it’s a free market economy.
The other thing I learned- stiff Aussie pricing has to do with taxes and the high cost of labor. When I worked at The Gap in high school, they paid me around $6/hr. “Minimum” wage here is usually at least twice that, more so for retail staff. It has to do with cost of living.
So what about the thousands of Aussies who make their living in retail? What about the delightful independent businesses staffed by insanely helpful and knowledgeable staff? Is it ok to have them fit you for ski boots in a process that could take up to an hour, only to waltz out with the knowledge of size and brand so you can go buy the same ski boot online for half the price? No, it’s not ok. That’s rude. It’s stealing the time of the people staffed to help fit your boots. $50 for an hour and a half or two hours of work is reasonable here.
Is it ok to charge for time spent fitting? Is this the eventual future of retail everywhere? I go sneaky shopping to try on styles I find interesting, or to check out construction techniques or fabrics. Who doesn’t? I try on things I know I’ll never buy in order to increase my own knowledge. Is that wrong? Where’s the line? How will retail change with the internet? Borders is bankrupt, thanks at least in part to Amazon.
Should a shop charge for customer service? How much should they charge? What will the stores of the future look like? Will they be tiny places with a demonstration model in each size, then you place an order which will be sent to you at home? Perhaps so, and the more I think about it, the more it seems an efficient way to run retail rather than paying the rent and staff to maintain huge spaces full of stock. If you can’t beat them (the internet), then join them, right?
As always, I appreciate opinions.
(I put together some Moderne sleeves this evening, my goodness they are interesting…)