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December 13, 2017
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Australian brand Witchery's lastest campaign. Source: witchery.com.au.

It might be the land of "sweeping plains," larrikins and lamingtons, but for the many things that Australia is known for, fashion is not one of them. Its relatively barren fashion landscape is plagued by a monopoly of so-so labels and stores that, for the most part, lag notoriously behind seasonal trends (if not ignoring them all together). Seemingly forgotten by the runway-inspired fashion giants of northern shores, Australian residents wanting a fashion fix have often been forced to rendez-vous internationally. 

Australian brands are under increasing pressure 
from international competitors and the rise of
e-tailing. Source: businessday.com.au.

However, in a retail Cinderella story, the patience of Aussie fashion enthusiasts was rewarded in 2011 with the arrival of a Melbourne Topshop and Zara stores in both Sydney and Melbourne. But while shoppers rejoiced, the retail sector trembled. Ill-prepared, the era of fast fashion was knocking on their door. Now, more than a year on, as more high-street favourites cast their gazes south, the disparate Australian fashion retail sector is pulling out all the stops to weather the storm.

Following the lead of Topshop and Zara, British chain, River Island, is the newest store to join the bandwagon, declaring its intention to set-up shop Down Under. Approaching the market with an insider advantage, River Island has formed an alliance with domestic retailer, Retail Apparel Group (RAG), to make the transition. RAG founder Stephen Leibowitz described River Island fashion as, "on the money and very commercially fashionable," with few qualms as to its future success; noting Australia is River Island's largest online market outside the UK.

Swiftly succeeding River Island's announcement, the local retail sector was sent into a frenzy upon the confirmation that three of its most respected brands would soon be united. Wardrobe staple label, Witchery and coveted accessories boutique, Mimco, will soon be absorbed by the iconic Australian brand, Country Road. The acquisition, which is expected to be signed and sealed by October, is footnoted with the euphoric confidence of Country Road Chairman, Ian Moir, who said, "The acquisition of Witchery Group creates one of Australia's largest specialty fashion retailers." But not naive to the changeability of the current climate, Moir believes that market consolidation is the only way for the sector to sustain profitable growth amid the fast fashion takeover. The merger is expected to be the first of many as Australia's relatively close knit retail community joins forces to ride out the wave. 

Australian retailers have their work cut out for them, fending off international competition in both the physical and virtual worlds.

However, Australian retailers have their work cut out for them, fending off international competition in both the physical and virtual worlds. Luxury boutiques are struggling to compete with e-boutiques, which are able to offer the same designer goods, minus hefty import and goods and services taxes. Furthermore, the strong Australian dollar has been wreaking havoc on local businesses, making the market more lucrative to overseas retailers. Despite being held in strong esteem, online Australian store The Iconic is floundering, "We can't compete on price like Net-a-Porter," says co-founder and managing director Finn Age Haensel, "Net-a-Porter can offer cheaper, overseas prices." 

Nevertheless, reminiscent of its long-lived inability to be trend-competitive, the obstinate nature of Australia's retail sector may be the cause of its own downfall. "American retailers have been focusing on their e-commerce capability for the past decade when Australian retailers have had their head in the sand," says Lisa Wade of Stamford Interactive. Data suggests that there is a general, growing consumer preference toward online shopping, not just international price-bargaining. The National Australia Bank (NAB) Online Retail Sales Index noted 5.1 per cent of all national retail spending is attributed online, and is growing at 15 per cent annually. 

In fact, 73 per cent of online spending was generated domestically for the year ended April 2012. Nevertheless, poor domestic optimisation of e-commerce is contributing to the domestic figures falling 16 per cent, where international spending increased 13 per cent. "The American and the UK markets are substantially more mature than Australian retailers when it comes to offering a great online user experience," Wade informed the Australian Financial Review, "International retailers are picking up on the fact that Australian retailers have left open this huge niche in the market and so are increasingly targeting Australian consumers to come to their sites."

Iconic Australian brand, Country Road
recently expanded its holdings to
include Witchery and Mimco.
Source: fabsugar.com.au.

Whilst websites like The Iconic are struggling to compete financially, as an exclusively online retailer, it punches above its weight to replicate the platforms being offered by its international competitors. Likewise, recognising that bricks and mortar is no longer enough, some stores are reinventing their online presence. Department store, Myer is doing its best to cater appropriately to the demands of the consumer market and be internationally competitive. With dismal online sales of 1 per cent (which comparatively is more than 6 per cent behind international counterparts such as Macy's or Nordstrom), Myer is going tech-savvy. In-store wifi and iPad donned sales assistants will be prioritised over store expansion. General Manager for Marketing and Brand Development, Megan Foster coined the improvements as a bid to appeal to the "time poor, hyper-connected, very fashion conscious" shopper.

Meanwhile, Zara and Topshop mega stores and H&M real estate rumours will continue to circulate to challenge the resilience and strike fear in the Australian retail sector. Until then, shoppers will weather the storm just fine; with purses at the ready.

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