I just got an eye-opening look at how Amazon could change Australian shopping habits forever

Crowds gather to see the Union Square Christmas tree light up on Black Friday in San Francisco. Picture: Tony Yoo

I arrived in the US over the weekend. And as usual, the immigration officer asked what business brought me to the country.

When I told him I was a journalist attending an Amazon Web Services conference in Las Vegas, our conversation immediately turned to its retail parent Amazon and Black Friday.

In a dominant performance even by Amazon’s standards, the online retailer nabbed almost 50% of all sales on Black Friday – the “shopping holiday” that immediately follows Thanksgiving and marks the start of the Christmas retail season.

That meant Amazon raked in well over $US1 billion in just 24 hours of trading.

“Amazon only just opened in Australia, you know,” I said to the official.

“What? No way!” he replied.

He paused for a few seconds to process that information.

“What took them so long? It’s been around for 20 years here.”

It was my turn to pause as I scrambled for an easy headline answer to quickly get me past the immigration booth.

“I suppose we’re a long way away.”

But it’s complicated. Among many reasons, there’s the small population spread over great distances, high delivery costs, plus the effort and cost of Amazon having to build new warehouses and develop new supplier relationships.

I was a little embarrassed to admit Australia had fewer people than the state that I was entering, California.

Industry analysts have predicted Amazon would be prepared to absorb significant losses in Australia to undercut local rivals and establish market share.

The airport official then told me how Black Friday used to be an absolute mad scramble at the shops – similar to our Boxing Day sales – but now everyone conveniently purchases their bargains online. Shopping on the computer is now an ingrained part of American culture.

“You just wait until all your shopping malls disappear though,” he said.

And he’s right. The rise of online shopping has seen physical retailers, like Sears, in that country flounder – at least the ones that had not developed a significant enough web presence.

I said to the immigration official that I hoped Amazon’s arrival wouldn’t adversely impact the small, independent businesses in Australia.

“I hope so too,” he responded.

“But competition is a good thing.”

As I rode a taxi from the airport into the city, I noticed there was none of the usual San Francisco traffic – it was the smoothest ride in I’d ever experienced.

The cab driver said that it was because Black Friday was an unofficial holiday. Many employers will give the day off to allow a four-day weekend off for Thanksgiving, while other Americans would simply call in sick anyway.

“People used to be everywhere on the streets [on Black Friday] but now everyone shops online,” the driver said.

I told the driver too that Amazon had only just landed in Australia, and he also couldn’t believe it.

Later, I walked downtown to do some shopping of my own. Despite all the declarations about internet shopping taking over, the streets around Union Square were jam-packed with people grabbing bargains.

The shops were so full, queues were so long and service non-existent that I had no chance getting the items I wanted. I gave up.

But the locals told me these scenes were as quiet as the ocean compared to 10 years ago. Online shopping has allowed most people to avoid the stress of pounding the pavements and standing in line for hours.

After all, people have literally been killed in the past as they fought fellow shoppers for Black Friday deals.

It’s overly simplistic to solely blame Amazon and online shopping for the closure of thousands of physical retail outlets in the US. But it was still an amazing preview of what the Australian shopping landscape might be like in a decade’s time.

In fact, all of the Australian internet retailers Business Insider have spoken to, perhaps counterintuitively, have been positive about Amazon’s arrival.

“Amazon’s arrival will drive more people online,” said Catch Group co-founder Gabby Leibovich.

“There is an element of education needed for Australian retailers to see how great selling on [online] marketplaces can be, the fact that it won’t erode your brand, and the fact that selling on marketplaces is the future of online retailing. Amazon’s arrival can only help this education process and continue to make online king in Australia.”

As for all those Americans that avoided the downtown crowds? The best-selling items on Amazon this Black Friday were the Amazon Echo Dot smart speaker, Fire TV streaming stick with Alexa remote, the TP-Link smart AC plug, a pressure cooker and the 23andMe DNA test.

The journalist travelled to the US courtesy of Amazon Web Services.

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