The looming threat for Australia’s companies

We have met the enemy, and it is them.

With apologies to Pogo, there is a real and serious threat facing Australian business. And it will likely spare few and take no prisoners.

We’re used to seeing news stories of Amazon’s planned or pending arrival in Australia. Maybe it’ll arrive here, maybe it won’t. Regardless, Australian businesses should be worried.

Not necessarily about Amazon itself, but what it represents.

Amazon is at the forefront of online retail. Its continued growth is staggering, as it sweeps all before it. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, has said, of his competitors, ‘your margin is my opportunity’. Its current competitors know it isn’t kidding, as it slashes prices across the retail landscape.

The broad force allowing Amazon to be so dominant in the USA, and furthering its reach around the world, is a very particular one: online globalisation.

No, that’s no great new discovery, but the impacts are being increasingly felt.

Amazon now has an Australian site for electronic books, and has launched its Audible audiobook business here as well. Netflix, previously the province of geo-dodgers in Australia arrived with a bang, and promptly took top spot on the streaming charts, with daylight second and third. Facebook, Google and Twitter own their respective spaces. YouTube is encroaching on media, as is iTunes and Google Play.

And even physical retailers — like Zara, TopShop and others, buoyed by an online reputation and often a loyal ecommerce audience already in place — are coming to do battle with the locals. Building a brand in a new market is tough, but when that building has already been done, courtesy of an online reputation, the barriers are much, much smaller.

The overseas raiders are the empires of the twenty-first century. They’ve won the war at home and now they’re looking for new territory. Australia, with its relative affluence and similar culture is a logical place for them to look.

And if that’s not enough, the waves of disruptive innovation continue to emanate in concentric circles from the US, in particular.

There are very, very few Australian companies who will remain immune. Will banking in 2025 really look like it does today? Grocery retailing? Clothing? I doubt it.

Remember, smartphones are only 9 years old. Facebook is 12. Netflix has only been streaming video for a decade.

Now, I’m not suggesting Australian business will wither and die on the vine. But for business owners and investors alike, I have a simple message. The pace of innovation and disruption is quickening at an unprecedented rate. Even those industries once considered immune — bricklaying, surely, is a skill that won’t be computerised — are being overwhelmed by the pace of change (there’s a very early stage bricklaying robotics company now on the ASX).

That change has been happening for a while, too. How many Australian food companies can you name? Beer companies? Have a look in your pantry, laundry and kitchen — how many products are made by Australian businesses? The car companies are leaving. The steelmakers can’t be far behind.

Foolish takeaway

Before anyone gets their undies in a knot, this isn’t a call for xenophobic or insular government policies. Far from it. We benefit from trade far more than we lose from it. We should further open our economic borders, not close them.

But it is a call for investors, in particular, to recognise the change that’s currently underway. It’s a reminder that simply extrapolating the past is a crazy exercise. And it’s a reminder that unless you’re investing both on the ASX and overseas (predominantly in the USA), you’re taking undue risk — and likely missing out on some very large opportunities.

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Scott Phillips is the Motley Fool’s director of research. You can follow Scott on Twitter @TMFScottPThe Motley Fool's purpose is to educate, amuse and enrich investors. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.

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