Taking verbal swipes at Gerry Harvey and his Harvey Norman retail chain has almost become a national sport among eBusiness professionals in Australia. And given Harvey's long history of talking down online retail and talking up his own business, this is far from surprising.
But something interesting has happened over the last six months or so. The sleeping giant has woken to the importance of online retail.
At first, one could have been forgiven for underestimating the scale of the transition occurring within this company, as its first public effort — a deals site called Harvey Norman Big Buys — was unremarkable to say the least.
But then Harvey Norman launched a transactional website for its national retail chain, and suddenly the company's online strategy merited a second look.
In my latest report, "Website Functionality Benchmark: Australian Consumer Electronics Retailers", I tested the site's shopping features using Forrester's Website Functionality Benchmark methodology, and it failed. This means that on balance it did not provide the functionality that Forrester's research has shown to be practice. But here's the thing: the other four Australian sites I tested — Dick Smith, JB Hi-Fi, The Good Guys, and Kogan — failed the test too. That's what happens when you compare these sites to global best practice. But when you compare the functionality that the Harvey Norman site provides to the shopping features found on the local sites that it competes with, Harvey Norman now sits somewhere in the middle of the pack, trailing Dick Smith but ahead of the other tested retailers. In some areas, Harvey Norman was actually ahead of the other four. To take one example, at the time of testing, Harvey Norman was the only reviewed retailer to consistently highlight complementary products with priority positioning on each product page. And this is from the retailer that Australian eBusiness professionals love to bag.
Gerry Harvey is larger than life. For that reason alone, the "tall poppy syndrome" is destined to have its effect and Australian eBusiness professionals will surely continue picking holes in his business. But having devoted a large chunk of time to testing his main website using neutral criteria, I now consider Harvey Norman to be an Australian eBusiness to watch. And considering the potential impact of his new intiatives like Harvey Norman Direct Import, you should too.