By Neil Thomas
The past year has seen an ever-increasing pool of Australian retailers emerge as ‘online retailers’. Many have evolved a unique online presence through the development of new stores, innovative designs, social media widgets and integration, and more aggressive search engine optimisation (SEO) strategies.

A few years ago, many pundits predicted (by 2013) we would see a graveyard of empty Australian stores lying before us. Some retail sectors have suffered in recent years and have been forced to evolve their practices. If you look at the sector through the eyes of local businesses this year, the road ahead represents a climate ripe for local retailers to reclaim and secure territory through traditional and online channels.

Whether the retail challenges of the past few years have been due to consumer confidence, competition from offshore, exchange rates, the job market, or other reasons is always up for debate. What is certain for the retail road ahead is that consumers are still seeking great bargains in their own backyard.

Previously retailers were concerned with competition online from overseas markets. The latest data from The National Australia Bank (NAB) has supported the notion that Australian shoppers still prefer to buy local, even when shopping online. The same data also debunked the supposed threat from showrooming – the practice of browsing products in-store before moving online to (supposedly) buy them at a cheaper rate.

ShopBot’s own data, merchant relationships and experiences with hundreds of Australian retail partners over the past year support the NAB report findings. In fact, small-to-medium (SMB) ShopBot merchant represent some of the biggest growth areas across operations. Small Australian retailers are not only providing healthy competition to the larger players, they are also taking on the world in terms of prices and services offered online.

Through intimate knowledge of industry, smart SEO tactics and strong communication to customers via traditional and online channels, Australian retailers are realising the powerful and complimentary role online retail can play in their success. Online pricing is important, it’s what ShopBot specialises in, but it’s one part of a very rich retail toolset.

In my view, online retail offers crucial support to existing channels for sales and marketing and should not be viewed as a competitor to what is working already. Often refered to as omni-channel, convergence or, in plain English, using the best tools possible to reach your customers in 2013, this year will represent a mainstream uptake of more sophisticated and integrated retail practices in Australia.

Australia is still relatively “behind” in terms of online retail penetration and uptake from across our industry, we are getting there and taking to ecommerce with the enthusiasm and aggression that makes this country a leader in so many other fields. 2013 will be a defining year for Australian retail, online and offline.

Neil Thomas is the sales director at ShopBot, one of Australia’s largest and most established price comparison websites.