It ain't easy to inspire the wrath of the channel. But once it's there, mountains shake. Take Harvey Norman's flamboyant chief, Gerry Harvey. No sooner had he declared his hatred for ACCC chairman Professor Allan Fels, the phlegmatic enforcer of fair competitive behaviour decided to announce his retirement. OK, we all know that Fels retired for family reasons and Harvey's feuds with the ACCC are an ongoing affair, but let's not pretend Gerry's fury ends with inconsequential tantrums.
Fels may not have been scared enough to retire to avoid Gerry's public "love letters", yet Gerry's actions were reminiscent of the Dear John letter (or was it Dear Ian?) he sent to Compaq following the announcement of the latter's direct retail strategy a few years ago, which resulted in the very palpable pulling of Compaq hardware from Harvey Norman shelves. You could call it a monumental spat, but it's good to see that there is at least one player in the industry not afraid of some serious muscle flexing, even if it is in the manner of a public soap opera.
I mean, Gerry's no daisy, but the good professor's penchant for "preventative intervention" (making an example of a leading industry player to discourage the rest from anti-competitive practices) has been a thorn in the side of many an industry player. Just ask Dell, eisa and any ISP who's ever used the words "free" or "unlimited" in their advertising campaigns.
In the absence of a visible and strong industry association to represent the channel's interests, Harvey's stand, although self-motivated and slightly arrogant in execution, at least inspires confidence that this industry has some determined leaders ready to put up a fight when all the other sheep are hiding in the barn, either not realising their own strength or not quite sure how to use it.
The whole affair also raises the question as to why Fels and the ACCC continue to shy away from businesses infamous for shonky practices to pursue companies like Harvey Norman, which, let's face it, was guilty of nothing more than an ill-judged marketing campaign after running out of stock for its Quickbooks software bundle promotion.
Of course, it does send a very good message to the market when the likes of the ACCC pulls up one of the industry heavyweights for bait advertising. But what riles Harvey and several other ACCC victims is that there are so many scams in the retail market that have been acknowledged by the authorities but not acted upon.
Why then, would the ACCC, which plays such an important role in maintaining an even playing field in the Australian market, invest so heavily in an ongoing campaign over a questionable case of bait advertising? When Target or Kmart (among other favourite targets of Fels) run a red-light special on kids' clothes, what consumer doesn't expect a miniscule disclaimer at the bottom saying "no rain checks"?
What's more, when you walk into Harvey Norman, it's your prerogative to walk out again. You don't have to be bait advertised. There are other, equally as subtle abuses of consumer trust in the marketplace that very rarely cop the wrath of the authorities. The amount of times the ACCC has said it would take a long hard look at Telstra and then backed away in haste, muttering "No, it's all good here", makes you wonder whether the ACCC is more concerned with easy wins than protecting consumers.
If Fels was looking for an easy, clean victory over Harvey Norman, someone probably should have alerted him to Gerry's tenacious personality.