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Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has urged Australian retailers to “get over” their online retailing issues, and embrace the government’s NBN (National Broadband Network) as their next great opportunity or risk Australia losing its international competitiveness in the global economy.

His transformation from network builder and censor to internet retail spruiker came at the government-organised Online Retail Forum in Sydney last week.

“The Government is aware of various reports that suggest that online retail in Australia is lagging behind its international competitors. We know from some reports that 58.5 per cent of Australian small businesses are not online, and 72.9 per cent do not offer sales or transactions online,” he said.

With retail accounting for annual turnovers of more than $242bn dollars, Conroy said that when this sector “fully engages in the digital economy, the online economy, the potential gains for us all are enormous”.

The conference coincided with news of the collapse of retail book giants Borders, Angus & Robertson and the Whitcoulls chain of newsagencies in New Zealand, seen as highlighting the issue of the erosion of traditional retail sales by online shopping options.

According to Australian National Retailers Association research, the strong Australian dollar has spurred at least three-quarters of Australians to plunge online to shop in the past three months, with most heading to international sites.

Despite big retailers making GST an issue, under four per cent of respondents said dodging the GST was an incentive; the strong dollar, product availability and a time-poor population were all key drivers.

Conroy pitched the NBN as a game-changer for retailers.

“Its speed and reliability will open horizons that have been previously impossible to access, particularly for rural, regional and remote Australia. What it will mean for retail is that a business, no matter how small it is, or where it is located, will be able to access national and global markets.”

The Online Retail Forum was a precursor to the Government’s recently announced inquiry into the future of Australian retail by the Productivity Commission. ®

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