Amazon’s Australian Debut Brings Excitement, Dread and Defiance

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Amazon quietly began operations in Australia on Tuesday, the start of what could be a shake-up of that country’s retail market, which is worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

For Australian businesses, Amazon’s international expansion — which now includes more than a dozen countries — has brought with it hasty pivots and familiar feelings of enthusiasm, doubt and existential dread.

But people who posted on social media about Amazon’s debut were generally underwhelmed, with prospective Australian customers playfully pointing out lackluster product offerings and uncompetitive pricing.

One New York Times reporter spotted a pair of shoes listed in the website’s cookware section, a sign of the site’s growing pains.

Some compared Amazon’s unremarkable Australian debut with that of another digital giant: Netflix. When that service arrived in Australia in 2015, it offered a notably leaner offering of its streaming-on-demand product, especially in comparison with its American lineup.

However, experts were quick to note that Amazon, the world’s biggest retailer, had yet to flex its full retail muscles.

“I’d say it’s early days — it’s Day 1,” said Jack O’Leary, a United States-based analyst at PlanetRetail RNG, a global retail insights firm. “As you see more sellers come to the marketplace, you’ll see a deeper assortment, depth, and price competition will only go up from there.”

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Mr. O’Leary pointed out that at Amazon’s debut, the Australian marketplace had only a few hundred sellers — or third-party vendors — who are now listing their products on the site. Globally, the company has millions of sellers, a volume seen as key to Amazon’s formula of providing large assortments of products at ruthlessly competitive prices.

As the number of sellers increases — and the company’s pricing algorithm takes hold — its penetration into the marketplace will improve significantly, he said.

Major Australian retailers, in the meantime, have long since begun preparing for Amazon’s entry into the marketplace. Some, like the electronics retailer JB Hi-Fi, expanded shipping offerings to include same-day delivery in certain regions.

Others, like Harvey Norman, have doubled down on their physical presences — the company has placed what it calls flagship stores in Ireland and throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Gerry Harvey, the company’s chairman, had previously said that Amazon would be “idiots” to begin its retail offering so close to Christmas.

“We haven’t got to adjust to anything,” said Mr. Harvey, who insisted that his business had not altered its plans in anticipation of Amazon’s arrival. “We’ve been in business now for 56 years. I’ve always been keen and able to be ahead of the pack. The minute someone gets ahead of us, I’ll hand the badge in. They follow us, we don’t follow them.”

Mr. Harvey complained about the “free publicity” that Amazon had received in the lead-up to the debut, and said their retail offerings had never posted a profit. (The company’s strategy is to build market share and pump the cash generated by its business into new growth initiatives like video streaming and devices.)

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Australians spend less on the internet than Americans or Europeans, but their spending there is growing, with eBay and major local electronics retailers catering to the national market.

Mr. O’Leary, who has studied Amazon’s impact globally, said that businesses seeking to match the company’s product variety and pricing were fighting a losing battle.

“If you’re trying to out-Amazon Amazon — well, there are very few retailers that can compete on that level,” he said. “Really, you need to differentiate from Amazon with some sort of unique assortment or product offering. Additionally, store-based retailers can take advantage of their retail presence.”

But for some small business owners, the disruption has created opportunity.

“We’ve been following it very closely,” Tristan Swanwick, the co-founder of Swanwick Sleep, an Australian company that sells sleep-aiding glasses, said of Amazon’s debut in Australia.

“As soon as Amazon officially announced they were coming to Australia, we started sending emails and making phone calls” to ensure they would be among the first to team up with Amazon in Australia, he added.

Mr. Swanwick said his company initially started its business in the United States through Fulfilled by Amazon, a program that allows small businesses to have Amazon handle things like warehousing, delivery and customer service.

“It really lowers the barrier for entry for small businesses getting started in e-commerce,” he said.

Swanwick Sleep was among the first batch of merchants included in Amazon’s Australian offering, easing its efforts to penetrate the Australian market.

“Our mother used her spare bedroom to store inventory for us,” he said. “She would go down to the post office, maybe two or three times a day, depending on demand, to send off orders to Australian customers.”

“She’s one of the happiest people in Australia that Amazon is here — she gets her spare bedroom back,” he added.