Evolution of retail 

In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED, White Gum Valley resident ROY LEWISSON casts his humorous and insightful eye over the history of retail in Australia, and it’s impact on Fremantle. Mr Lewisson is a long term member of the White Gum Valley precinct group. 

EMPTY shopfronts in Perth are at their highest rate in 20 years. 

While Fremantle is doing a little better, retail here is struggling too. 

While some of this is the result of the economic downturn, some of it is about fundamental changes in retail that are changing our city centres. 

In my grandmother’s day there was the delicatessen (Europe), the dairy (NZ), the general store (USA) and Australia had the corner shop. 

“Slip down to the corner shop and buy me some milk, bread and a paper – and buy a lolly for yourself – there’s a good boy.” 

Even now I can picture that apron and smell those scones. 

These establishments sold most household consumables (it wasn’t until after World War II, when the multi-outlet concept started to gain traction in Australia). 

By the early 1950s, the local shopping centre was alive and well.

My local was fairly typical to other baby boomers: medium size ‘supermarket’, butcher, post office, newsagent (who shared with the chemist), hairdresser, doctors surgery, the take-away (who also was the green grocer and kept the school dentist employed) and the deli (which was also a mini European ‘supermarket’.) 

The pool hall was around the side and although it was the local institution for socially unacceptable habits, the ability to competently handle a snooker cue is an essential and highly underestimated, urban-life skill.

The next retail construction concept was the department store. 

Although these started in the mid to late 19th century (David Jones 1838) and Myer (1900), by the 60s they were holding iconic status in Australia. 

Best part of these institutions was the cafeteria. Those trays you had to push past every single item on display before you arrived at the cashier was retailing brilliance. 

As fast as my brother and I were loading those trays up, our mum was putting those triple chocolate eclairs back. 

Then the department stores were cloned and assembled under one roof in the birth of the ‘shopping complex’, aka the ‘mall.’

Personally I have a ‘complex’ (psychological disorder) when it comes to shopping complexes. 

Actually it is a complex (complicated) complex – so it therefore becomes a complex complex complex. 

And now we have ‘online shopping’.

Online sales exceeded $20 billion for the first time in 2016 and online spending is growing five times faster than traditional retail spending. 

It now accounts for 6.8 per cent of total bricks and mortar sales and shows no signs of plateauing. 

For any of you who are addicted to ‘crowd funding’ purchases, you have my sympathy, as I am thoroughly hooked.

Where does Freo retail fit into all of this?

In The Sydney Morning Herald in 2014, founder of Intelligent Investor John Addis stated: “The department store era is all but over. The principal task for directors is to manage the decline.” 

This is exactly what Myers did in Fremantle – closed a department or two, then closed a floor and with decreasing profits – couldn’t wait for their lease to finish. 

Many Fremantle residents bemoan the loss of a large department store in the CBD. The exit occurred due to lack of patronage; no other reason.

US retail analyst Jan Kniffen predicts 400 of the 1100 enclosed malls in the US will close in the coming years, 250 will thrive and the rest will struggle. 

In contrast, shopping in Fremantle is not a ‘complex’ retail experience. 

You enter one shop, make a purchase and should you wish to purchase something else – you may need to go to another shop. 

Spontaneous consumption occurs inside one shop – like those chocolate-coated liquorice stick’s at Kakulas’ Sister (they were not on the list) or whilst strolling between shops. 

Unlike a department store, Freo shoppers need to go to different shops which are not under one roof. 

This is the historic layout of the city, as per Subiaco, Leederville and other chronologically challenged areas.

Due to the make-up of the Fremantle community, speciality retail outlets like Planet Ark, Birkenstock’s or the multiple electric bike shops thrive in Fremantle in a way they would not in a complex. 

But there are of course, a number of Fremantle retail outlets suffering financial stress. 

While this is not a localised Fremantle problem – more a regional, national and global trend – there are some things Freoites can do to alleviate such stress:

• Making a conscience decision to shop in Fremantle as opposed to other shopping complexes

• Make purchases locally rather than on-line (this will be my biggest challenge)

• Attracting more people into the CBD – something the City of Fremantle is promoting via Kings Square and other developments

• Continue to promote Fremantle as a tourist destination for retail flow-on e.g. lobby the state government to refurbish the Victoria Quay Passenger Terminal 

Freo’s retail is well placed to tackle the “complex” challenges of changing retail patterns and online shopping. 

However as it adapts over coming years it’s going to need extra love and support from us locals. 

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