Melbourne CBD: ugly duckling to magnificent swan

Shopping Centre NewsTony Dimasi, Managing Director - Retail Vol 34, Number 2 - 2016

Effective city planning has been almost unknown to Melbourne for at least 30 or 40 years. For the ordinary Melburnian, that means our city has been progressively destroyed. It no longer contains the action and charm it once had.  To the city retailer – ever ready to adapt to new circumstances – it means expensive expansion into the suburbs to chase the customers who no longer visit the city.  Our planners lack the courage to bring the city back to life.  Our planners should be reaffirming the notion of Melbourne as an arcaded city instead of allowing architects to allocate useless, wind-swept forecourts ‘for the public use’.

The above appeared in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper in June 1978 in an article titled An Empty, Useless City Centre by Professor Norman Day, a pre-eminent Melbourne-based architect.

Fast-forward to 2016, and Melbourne CBD shopping is vibrant, exciting and extensive, the equal of any city in the world, with some 600,000m2 and annual sales of around $5 billion.

Melbourne CBD is renowned for its quirky laneways, which typically accommodate espresso bars, trendy cafes and younger, edgier fashion shopping, in a slightly gritty but very colourful environment.

The so-called "Paris-end of Collins Street, extending from Swanston Street to Spring Street, contains an extensive array of the top designer houses in the world – Louis Vuitton, Prada, Armani, Cartier, Hermès, Bvlgari, Gucci, Dior, Chanel and many more. These are largely housed in beautiful refurbished historic buildings.

Premium retailing focuses on fashion with a strong international flavour, and food is provided in the recently built 45,000m2 Emporium centre, which straddles the block between Lonsdale Street and Little Bourke Street and links the Myer and David Jones department stores with Melbourne Central. The latter is itself a large and highly successful shopping centre, but has a clearly distinct market position from Emporium.

The two department stores, both on Bourke Street Mall, are flagships, and the Myer store in particular is the largest and most successful in Australia. The Mall contains a wide range of supporting everyday fashion.

The recently opened Collins Lane

The QV Centre, on Swanston Street opposite Melbourne Central, is younger in mix, more student focused but also offering staples via the presence of full=scale Woolworths, Dan Murphy’s and Big W stores.

Emporium, QV and Melbourne Central between them provide close to 110,000m2 of retail floorspace and achieve in excess of $1 billion in retail sales. The additional of the Emporium centre in 2015 saw sales at the adjacent Melbourne Central increase rather than fall, emphasising the synergies between the various components that go to make up what is arguably Australia’s best – and certainly most eclectic – CBD retail offer.

More recent additions have included the new internationals: Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and Topshop. Hot off the press, having partially opened only a few weeks ago, is St Collins Lane, a $30-million remake of a centre originally built in 1992 which, arguably, failed to take full advantage of its premium location.

The new incarnation will deliver yet more new international retail brands to Melbourne – Reiss, Sandro, Maje, The Kooples and others – along with a new range of Australian and international retailed, all presented in a luxurious environment.

Shopping and dining are inextricably linked within Melbourne CBD, and the City of Melbourne’s previous Retail Strategy, which played such an important part in promoting and growing the CBD;s retail offer, became the Melbourne Retail and Hospitality Strategy in 2013. The importance of the current wave of food and beverage retailing which we have seen added to suburban regional centres was recognised some years ago in central Melbourne.

St Collins Lane

Interestingly, the success of the Melbourne CBD has occurred and continues to occur, within a broader environment which is highly competitive from a suburban retail perspective.

Australia’s most successful major regional centre, Chadstone, is situated in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, along with a number of other larger and highly successful regionals: Westfield Doncaster, Highpoint SC, Westfield Southland, Eastland SC, and a number of others. The suburban areas also contain more than 40 sub-regional centres as well as more significant high-street centres than any other Australian city, in particular Chapel Street/Toorak Road in Toorak/South Yarra, Burke Road in Camberwell and Church Street in Brighton.

But the retail environment in the CBD is discernibly different to that which exists at any one of these successful suburban centres. Shopping in the CBD is characterised by both its diversity, which is unmatched anywhere else, and its strongly urban orientation, both in mix and, even more so, in ambience.

Those features have, in turn, been greatly assisted by a booming intercity of international students, particularly from Asian countries, a growing CBD workforce and increasing levels of visitation, both interstate and international.

It is possible to now look at the retail offer of the Melbourne CBD and almost take its success for granted, but it is important to understand that it has not always been thus.

For all of the 1980s and most of the 1990s, the picture of CBD retailing painted by Professor Norman Day’s article in The Age in June 1978 prevailed, as the fascination with the new suburban developments gathered pace. It is fair to say that, at that point in time, it seemed that CBD retailing was unlikely to ever recover.

St Collins Lane

That it did recover, and now flourishes beyond all expectations, is due to a number of factors, including the drivers of visitation outlines above. But it is also in large part due to a number of factors, including the drivers of visitation outlines above. But it is also in large part due to a ‘can do’ approach by the relevant planning authorities, which has seen numerous developments and redevelopments able to be successfully delivered. In a number of instances, the false starts that were initially unsuccessful (such as the original incarnation of Melbourne Central based on Japanese department store Diamaru) have been rethought and renegotiated, with remarkable success then achieved.

The very healthy state of suburban shopping centres is a demonstration of the fact that the interplay between CBD and suburban shopping need not be a zero-sum game. Of course citywide growth helps, and Melbourne has been Australia’s fastest growing city for most of the past 15 years, but the quality of retail experience that is created is also fundamental to success, particularly in a CBD environment. The many visitors to Melbourne, for example, who contribute so significantly to the total CBD retail turnover, would be much more inclined to keep their wallets closed if the CBD’s retail offer was not as extensive or as tempting. Those retail dollars would then be lost to Melbourne.

Even for local shoppers the expenditure on many retail goods is by definition ‘discretionary’. The range and diversity of shopping offers available, both in the CBD and at suburban locations, play critical roles in encouraging such discretionary retail spending.

The reinvestment in so many CBD retail projects in Melbourne – Melbourne Central, Emporium, QV, St Collins Lane, the various buildings at the top end of Collins Street – continues to build on the momentum initially created by the discovery of Melbourne’s laneways and ‘little’ streets as funky, innovative shopping and dining precincts.

Success for CBD retailing in Melbourne has been a long time coming, but is now well and truly entrenched. However it should never be taken for granted.

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About the author:

Tony Dimasi Managing Director – Retail E:
Tony Dimasi is MacroPlan’s Managing Director – Retail.  Since 1982 Tony has undertaken independent research on behalf of retailers, shopping centre owners and managers, property developers, government and statutory authorities, as well as a wide range of other clients. The research includes both supply and demand analysis, as well as extensive customer research, investigating customer behaviour, motivations and preferences with regard to shopping and activity centre uses. Tony has worked across all parts of Australia and New Zealand, and has provided advice in relation to virtually every significant activity centre location in both countries. The range of projects has included BD properties, super regional centres, regional and sub-regional centres, district and neighbourhood centres, homemaker retail facilities, freestanding stores, and all other retail formats, as well as commercial and industrial precincts. 
About MacroPlan: MacroPlan’s experienced and qualified economists align their understanding of macro-economic forces with micro-economic variables such as geographic and industrial characteristics, demographics, labour market shifts, resource demand and commercial realities.  Contact Tony Dimasi, Managing Director – Retail today to discuss your property research requirements.