This time last year, the Australasian retail sector had Amazon fever. The US giant was gearing up to open a massive fulfilment centre in Melbourne and go live with its local site.

There was a lot of talk that the e-tail giant would push across the Tasman, too. "Once Australia is bedded in, New Zealand presents a logical extension to Amazon's investment in the region," said a much-quoted Forsyth Barr report.

In the final event, Amazon had an underwhelming Christmas debut, choosing to kick off its Aussie online store with a relatively modest lineup of products. The hype dissipated. A number of under-pressure retail stocks recovered.

And yet Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is not one to sit on his hands. The latest narrative from across the ditch is that a "land and expand" strategy is starting to take shape as Amazon Australia moves into groceries and generally starts to look more assertive.

Advertisement

ForBarr senior equities analyst Jeremy Simpson says the threat never went away.

"It's not a case of if but when,"Amazon will arrive in New Zealand, he told the Herald this week.

Commentator Ben Kepes, who has spent a lot of time with Amazon, says the company's model is all about scale - and New Zealand, with its tiny population, just doesn't have it.

Kepes does the company has global ambitions and that "If there was an easy way of them servicing New Zealand as an offshoot of their Australian operation, Amazon would no doubt take it. But his bottom line remains, "don't expect any major investment in this market anytime soon."

And the government's move to extend GST to offshore online sales below $400 (previously exempt) will help.

But Simpson says, "We're not immune to what's happening globally. We're a relatively small market but Auckland might have some attractions for them."

And regardless, more and more Kiwis are buying from Amazon, Alibaba and other e-tailers, regardless of whether they have a direct local presence and, worldwide, online sales are increasing as a percentage of total retail sales. So local retailers have no choice but to get their act together.

So how are they doing? It's a mixed bag.

"Kathmandu [NZX:KMD] has been the most successful at creating a good omnichannel experience," Simpson says.

Online sales no account for 9.4% of total sales versus 7.5% last year. A 22% increase in website traffic driving in 2018 has driven a 36% in online sales increase. Automated warehouse strategy has helped with rapid delivery of online sales.

He also gives a nod to Briscoe Group [NZX:BGP] which he says has done a good job with click and collect trial at 10 of its Briscoe Homeware stories and eight Rebel Sports stores, which is now being expanded. Sharp inventory management and fulfilment has helped online sales grow to 9% of total revenue.

Managing director Rod Duke credited online sales as a key reason for Briscoes' record $29.34m net profit for the first half. His group also gets reflected glory from Kathmandu's online success by dint of its 20% shareholding.

Strong online sales have helped Kathmandu shares rise strongly over the past 24 months, a recent pullback notwithstanding. Chart / NZX.
Strong online sales have helped Kathmandu shares rise strongly over the past 24 months, a recent pullback notwithstanding. Chart / NZX.

The Warehouse Group [NZX:WHS] recently reported that online sales inched up from 7% of its total revenue in 2017 to 7.4% in 2018.

Logistical challenges are one reason for the group's relatively slow progress.

"In New Zealand, we've got a lot of challenges over the last mile," Simpson says, pointing to our low, spread out population and what he sees as high courier costs.

By the Warehouse Group's own admission, it's not doing a great job at grappling with those challenges, a full decade after it began online sales.

As detailed in its annual report, a distributed fulfilment model for some stores means "customers can often receive multiple parcels in the fulfilment of their orders."

It adds, with refreshing bluntness, "We still have a long way to go, and the purchasing and fulfilment parts of the online customer experience are not yet up to standard."

With NZ's modest population, same-day deliveries may never be the norm, but the two-to-four day times on many items on thewarehouse.co.nz is still unattractive.

Progress was made in 2018 in areas like chatbots and a new PartPay option that lets customers spread out payments, but further upgrades will a major focus for the year ahead.

And while progress may have been slow, it's speeding up. It's also worth noting that The Warehouse Group is ahead of some big retail chains overseas. Online sales account for just 3% of Walmart's sales in the US, for example.

Despite Simpson's praise for Kathmandu and Briscoes' efforts, ForBarr's enthusiasm only goes so far. The brokerage has a "neutral" rating on both retailers, and an "underperform" on The Warehouse Group.

Trade Me - which has heavily focused its strategy around retailers offer new goods over the past couple of years - is rated "outperform".

Head of Marketplace Stuart McLean earlier said Trade Me does not Amazon necessarily bothering with NZ. But it is still arguably the most advanced in terms of battle-hardening itself.

A key element of Amazon's strategy is its Prime programme, which sees customers qualify for unlimited deliveries for a set annual fee. Last Christmas, Trade Me trailed a similar scheme with its "Project Santa" pilot which offered 5500 trialists unlimited deliveries to any address in the country during the three months to December 24 for a flat fee of $9.

Project Santa was impressive, but there is still no New Zealand player who can match Amazon's Prime, which also throws in movie, TV series and music downloads. If the US giant does put boots on the ground here, substantial reinvention will be required.