Over 20 representatives of Australia's leading IT retailers gathered last Friday to informally discuss various issues facing the industry and gauge support for the formation of an industry body to represent their interests.
John Slack-Smith, Harvey Norman's general manager, computers and communications, said the meeting was intended to discuss ways of promoting the general interests of the IT retail channel.
He said the type of issues discussed included such chestnuts as Internet censorship, parallel importing laws, software piracy, sales tax avoidance, the GST and the impact of the Internet on retailing.
It was made very clear by Slack-Smith prior to the meeting that "there is nothing underhanded or secret" about it and that as a result, he felt a resolution may emerge to form an IT retailers' association in some form or manner.
"We as an industry face many opportunities and challenges in the future," Slack-Smith said. "Getting together to take a step up from the level of our individual businesses and talk about the industry as a whole is a way in which we can ensure we remain healthy and viable in the future. We will be undertaking exploratory dialogue to see whether there is any common ground amongst those in the industry in regards to promoting ourselves."
Peter Geer, computer buyer for Myer/Grace Brothers, said he would be attending on behalf of his employer and sister company Officeworks. He felt there is nothing unusual about industry associations and that "IT retailing should be no exception. The computer industry is still embryonic and has grown so fast that nobody has implemented such a body to date," he said. "I think there is clearly a need for some form of body. As a vital part of the industry, we need to have a voice, so we are getting together to discuss whether there would be any value in forming an association of that nature.
"People shouldn't read anything sinister into what we are doing. It has nothing to do with ganging up on suppliers or competitors. We are all fully aware of legal obligations in relation to collusion between companies and there has never been a hint of anything untoward in that. We are just looking to cover areas of common interest."
Geer added that it has to be remembered that retailers and their associated industries represent the livelihood of millions of Australians.
"It is a microcosm of the whole economy," he said. "Myer/Grace Brothers alone employs 26,000 people. If you take in all retailers, we are talking about millions of Australians.
"As leaders of those businesses we have a responsibility to make sure that we are very familiar with what the future holds."
Tim Quinn, computer products manager with David Jones, also confirmed that he had been approached to attend the meeting but had no idea as to what it was about. He said that whether it is directly related or not, it is the Compaq retail initiative that has spurred the big guns into action.
Quinn added that, in today's market, all the big PC manufacturers were selling direct in one form or another and that is a situation which represents a huge threat to retailers. Though representing "just 10 per cent" of the turnover that Harvey Norman achieves, he agreed there was some common ground that retailers can cover in relation to their IT sales.
"The fundamental issue is Compaq and the whole channel itself looking like it is going to sell direct," Quinn said.
Geer disagreed and said the dispute between Compaq and Harvey Norman "was clearly an individual decision" and that he would only be interested in discussing issues that were of a "general interest" nature.
He cited as an example a statement attributed to Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett that it is his Government's goal to see every home in Victoria connected to the Internet.
"What sort of feedback as a collective group can we give to the Government to help them achieve these goals?" Geer asked. "There are issues that are broader than one retailer and we need to have a voice as they arise."
Other retail organisations that would neither confirm nor deny whether they were attending the unofficial summit including the Vox Group, Dick Smith Electronics and the Victorian-based Clive Peeters.
Another organisation we spoke to that asked not to be quoted on the matter said there are definitely some common interests that should be discussed without contravening any laws and restrictions against collusion.
"It makes sense for the major players to discuss a whole range of things going on in the market and it is also logical that we should be getting together to broach those subjects," the source said.