The retail chain Dick Smith was probably one of the first names that came to mind for many people when they needed an item of new technology. Its shops seemed to be everywhere and stock everything in the field. The staff all seemed to know how things worked and were not pushy sales people. Like most long-established Australian retailers in this country, it felt like one of ours. How could it have failed?

Only its financiers may know and its receivers may find out. But it is already apparent that we can entertain little hope of the brand's survival. If it were otherwise, a way surely would have been found to honour the gift vouchers sold in the weeks before Christmas. It may be normal commercial practice, but nevertheless it is demonstrably unfair that the vouchers are treated as unsecured credit. They were sold when the stores were heavily discounting their stock before Christmas in what is now evident was a desperate attempt to arrest a slump in sales and severe inventory problems.

The fair thing to do now would be to accept the vouchers for items at their pre-sale prices. Arguably, those who bought vouchers as gifts rather than discounted goods were taking the risk that the goods would be more expensive when the recipients cashed them in. But doubtless the law gives the financiers prior claim on any value remaining in the stock and those who bought gift vouchers can only suggest the recipients retain them for the slim possibility the firm might trade its way out of receivership.

Customers who have put down payments on goods are in the same position, and that is odd because the business could gather more cash from them if it completed the sale. But in both cases, to keep customers' money does not seem fair. These people were not taking a conscious business risk like suppliers of wholesale goods or services to the retail chain, who may now go without payment. Consumers who have paid, or part-paid, for goods ought to be considered the rightful owners in law.


To those in the know, Dick Smith's downfall is said to be no surprise. One retail consultant blames a rebranding exercise that left the chain in a "no-man's land". The last change of ownership cannot have helped. The human Dick Smith, who started the company as an installer of car radios in Sydney in 1968, sold to Woolworths in 1982.

It expanded to New Zealand in the 1980s, selling many of us our first home computers. Its outlets proliferated with the new internet technology of the 1990s, but so did competition. Over the past decade, online shopping has eaten into the business that first equipped us for it.

In 2012, Woolworths sold the brand to a private equity company for A$100 million. The following year it was listed on the stockmarket at a value of A$534 million. Its value had sunk to A$84 million when trading in the stock was halted on Monday.

Its fate is in the hands of its bankers after disappointing Christmas sales. It is always sad to see a familiar shop or chain go under, but what a pity Dick Smith has left buyers of its vouchers feeling cheated and the recipients bereft. Redeeming them would have been a decent parting gift.