The percentage of e-commerce sales in Australia is set to jump ahead in the next two years.

The percentage of e-commerce sales in Australia is set to jump ahead in the next two years. Photo: Jim Rice

In the important November/December trading period in the UK last year e-commerce accounted for over 10 per cent of retail sales for the first time.

The momentum then continued breathlessly into the new year with online sales surging north of 11 per cent of the total retail takings.

Meanwhile, in the United States, e-commerce's share of sales has still barely topped the 5 per cent barrier despite more than a decade of mainstream experience with the online channel.

This begs an obvious question: Why have the British embraced online shopping at the expense of conventional retail channels so much more than Americans? And importantly for Australian business – will Australia follow the UK's e-commerce growth trajectory or the more subdued American one?

The stakes are huge for those heavily invested on the property side, such as retailers with stores, shopping centre operators, investors and the whole industry supply and distribution ecosystem.

The answer to the question is found in a place that is usually overlooked as an influence in the e-commerce arena, and yet exerts enormous influence right under the noses of everybody in the retail industry – the Australian and British planning bureaucracies.

Australia has come late to the internet party for a number of reasons, not the least of which are its technology-shy mainstream retailers and a parcel delivery infrastructure that elicits nostalgia for Cobb & Co. Even so, according to the most recent data from private sources, e-commerce as a percentage of retail sales in Australia is already about the same as that in the US and set to forge ahead in the next year or two.

So far then, Australia's e-commerce growth profile is looking more like Britain's than America's. And as many Australian store-based retailers bemoan their slow start to 2012 and look ahead to another year of mediocre sales growth, many will blame e-commerce itself.

This is a false attribution. E-commerce is not the villain of this piece, neither is the high saving rate, neither is the weather, and neither - for heaven's sake - is Spain's fiscal crisis.

The reason real estate is losing market share to the internet at a faster rate in the UK and Australia than in America is that it was all planned that way.

In the UK, government planners have spent decades defending the High Street precincts by preventing the development of suburban shopping centres. The High Street hubs continued to crumble anyway and ultimately the regulators grudgingly allowed the development of some shopping centres, not out of any love for consumers but more because shopping centre developers were a ticket to economic revitalisation.

Nonetheless, the damage had already been done. UK's shopping centre space per capita is now less than a quarter of that in the US and its total retail space per capita is less than half.

This has narrowed the choices available to British shoppers relative to the US and made online shopping vastly more attractive once the e-commerce infrastructure was put in place.

Australia's planners have done an equally comprehensive hatchet job on retail development as their UK brethren, not just stifling competition by limiting the supply of floorspace but with prescriptive zoning practices.

This is exemplified by the obsession with herding businesses into 'activity centres' and even – in the case of the infamously-named 'bulky goods' centres – setting aside zones which lock out various kinds of retail formats.

These kinds of planning constraints have prevented the natural process of forging hybrid retail formats that evolve to meet the changing needs of shoppers in consumer-friendly countries.

The first major result of all this planning activity has been the strangulation of supply, which has left Australia with barely more retail space on a per capita basis than the UK. Result: fewer choices for Australian consumers and higher prices.

A second major outcome is that consumers are stuck with a retail hierarchy that is 30 years out of date, lacking a number of important formats that thrive overseas. Examples of formats missing from the Australian retail scene are power centres, retail parks, lifestyle centres, power towns, super-centres and, until recently, warehouse clubs. Factory outlet centres have just squeaked in under the wire, but have been mostly confined to airport land. Result: fewer choices and higher prices.

A third major outcome is the most common complaint you hear from international retailers wanting to come to Australia: the difficulty of getting appropriate sites, another corollorary effect of planning constraints. The injection of fresh blood into Australian retail from overseas has therefore been stifled by planning regulation as well. Yep, fewer choices and higher prices.

With all these strikes against the planning system, it's small wonder that e-commerce penetration in Australia is set to follow the much more aggressive growth path of the UK rather than the more moderate path of the US where shopping options in the normal terrestrial channels have been allowed to flourish.

So, look for 10 to 15 per cent of sales to be accounted for by the internet in Australia within five years.

About the only thing that stands in the way of e-commerce now is Australia Post, which has evidently decided that the vexing 'last mile' of delivery is not its problem any more.

Leaving cards in letterboxes and installing lockers in its own branches are the preferred delivery solutions, keeping the onus on shoppers to drive somewhere to pick up their packages or have them returned to sender.

Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at michael@mbaker-retail.com and www.mbaker-retail.com.

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