May 17, 2022

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A tale of two suburbs, and how COVID has changed the way we shop

High Street Armadale, with its mix of upmarket fashion and general retail, drinking, dining and services, is “flying” according to market analysts, with a shop vacancy rate of about 10 per cent, according to the Plan1 property consultancy, compared with 22 per cent in the CBD.

The commercial hub has benefited from large numbers of professionals working from home and within a short distance and the High Street traders group puts the vacancy rate closer to 6 per cent.

Fashion retailer Lisa Barron says High Street Armadale’s loyal following and quality shops, dining and drinking options are the key to its enduring appeal.

Fashion retailer Lisa Barron says High Street Armadale’s loyal following and quality shops, dining and drinking options are the key to its enduring appeal.Credit:Eddie Jim

“The street is performing well,” the association’s Steve Williams told The Age.

Fashion retailer Lisa Barron said the key to the street’s success lies in its mix of businesses.

“I think of High Street as an experiential street,” she said. “It’s made up of great stores and cafes and those kinds of places and to spend the money, you have to experience something as well,” Ms Barron said.

“It’s all about mutual support; a great fashion store needs a great cafe or wine bar to look after their clients while they’re in this vicinity and High Street certainly has a great array of that.

“It’s developed a very loyal following and when a place has built a reputation, it kind of sticks.”

But in Werribee, 44 kilometres to the west, and where the median weekly household income is less than two-thirds that of Armadale, local councillor Josh Gilligan says the shopping and dining experience is very different.

The former Labor mayor of Wyndham told The Age that for local professionals working from home, there was no option of a quick walk or drive to the local shop or cafe.

“It’s not a case of not wanting to go out and buy a coffee from a local cafe,” Cr Gilligan said. “It’s the ability to access a local cafe without having to drive.”

“It takes eight minutes to drive from my home Tarneit to Tarneit Central and then I’ve got to park the car and walk to the shops and then drive home again.

“So the $8 a day I’m not spending on myki could be used to buy two coffees a day, but I’m not doing that because there is no cafe within walking distance of my home, so there’s no incentive to do so. That’s really the urban planning problem we’ve got here in the outer suburbs and that will resonate with everyone.”

Cr Gilligan said residents were becoming more concerned about the quality, variety and accessibility of the local commercial infrastructure.

“I’m hearing more and more complaints from residents about the fact that there are limited options,” he said. “That was never ever a conversation pre-COVID because people were preoccupied with making sure they got a car park at a train station, and how do they get to and from work.

“All those infrastructure issues have turned into a conversation about choice, and the lack thereof and the failure of urban design to actually create choices in the place where you live.”

Pacific Werribee is the area’s largest shopping centre. Its general manager Ryan Ling did not disclose vacancy rates, but said the centre was “close to full occupancy”.

“Customer traffic is returning to pre-COVID numbers, and very pleasingly, sales are strengthening – upward trends we anticipate will only continue,” Mr Ling said.

“Interestingly, while traffic continues to recover, the promising sales results suggests a trend emerging of customers, perhaps visiting less frequently, but spending more. A trend, we believe, is consistent across other similar retail destinations.”

Property consultant Richard Jenkins, from Plan1, has been studying the fortunes of some of Melbourne’s long-established shopping strips over the past 20 years and says some, such as High Street in Armadale, Church Street in Brighton and Puckle Street in Moonee Ponds have thrived despite the pandemic.

But other strips familiar to generations of Melbourne shoppers and diners, such as Bridge Road in Richmond and Acland Street in St Kilda, were struggling with vacancy rates higher than those in the CBD.

Mr Jenkins said the key to survival for suburban shopping strips was the ability to adapt to changing demands and offer customers a variety of experience in one location.


“The pandemic has highlighted the structural trend which the sector has been undergoing for years and that evolution has also been witnessed in the strips,” he said.

“Increasingly the precincts are becoming more diverse, with vacant shops leased as office space, education, health and wellbeing and even residential.

“The changed consumer behaviour and limited resources underpins the need for landlords, occupiers and local government to collaborate and take innovative approaches to their long-term strategies.”

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