When it comes to local shopping, use it or lose it.

When it comes to local shopping, use it or lose it.

Have you noticed more empty shops in your neighbourhood shopping precinct, or for-lease signs in windows? Or interesting suburban shops being replaced by yet another franchised takeaway outlet or café?

Do you worry that small neighbourhood shopping strips will die, unable to survive against the seemingly unstoppable expansion of shopping centres? How would your suburb be affected if more local shops close?

Supporting neighbourhood retailers and shopping local is a great idea.  

My concern is not for so-called destination shopping strips such Chapel Street in Melbourne or Oxford Street in Sydney, although there have been plenty of reports about tough trading conditions in high-profile areas. Fashion-based retail precincts, such as Bridge Road in Melbourne, have struggled.

I am more concerned about secondary, neighbourhood shopping strips that have 20 to 30 shops, usually around key intersections in outer suburbs.

What’s your view?

-       Are more shops in your neighbourhood closing?

-       Has the local shopping strip become less attractive to visit?

-       What would make you “shop local”?

-       How can local councils better support suburban shopping strips?

The idea for this blog topic came after noticing a rise in for-lease signs in my local shopping strip. Like many similar streets, it is a hodge-podge of small shops, with some empty ones that create a bad look for nearby businesses. It's in need of a spruce-up and joint marketing effort.

It’s a shame. Supporting neighbourhood retailers and shopping local is a great idea. It makes communities more vibrant, interesting and convenient for residents, helps business owners and is good for the environment. I’d take an interesting shopping strip over a shopping centre any day.

Yes, it’s dangerous relying only on anecdotes about secondary shopping strips. For every stressed precinct, there may be a vibrant shopping strip elsewhere with bustling shops and cafes. Most retail information from commercial property agents focuses on larger shopping strips and is usually state-based.

Gary Loo, director of retail leasing at Knight Frank Australia, says many secondary shopping strips are struggling. “It’s not a new trend: the smaller shopping strips have being doing it tough for some time, as more clothing, fashion and book stores close. At the same time, the regional shopping centres are continuously expanding, to maintain market share and to broaden their tenancy mix.”

He adds: “There has been a marginal increase in (secondary shopping strip) vacancies in the past 12 months. The saving grace is more food stores opening and an increase in retail service businesses such as beauty, skincare and nail bars, moving to the main street because rents are now more affordable.”

But it only takes a marginal increase in vacancies to damage neighbourhood shopping zones. A few shop closures lead to less foot traffic in the area, which hurts other retailers. The precinct becomes less attractive for time-poor consumers who need the convenience of shopping centres.

Loo says secondary shopping strips typically have vacancy rates around 5 per cent. I would be surprised if small shopping strips maintain those rates in the next 12 to 18 months as consumers deal with the federal government’s budget austerity measures and slow wages growth.

If neighbourhood shopping strips are struggling when interest rates are at record lows and the economy is growing annually at a robust 3.5 per cent (at least for now), what will happen if economic conditions deteriorate?

Local councils should pay more attention to neighbourhood shopping strips. In fairness, some councils do a good job bringing retailers together to promote larger shopping strips that appeal to tourists and locals. But how many offer strong support to neighbourhood shopping strips?

Unlike shopping centres, the local shopping strip cannot choose its tenant mix or easily market the area. Councils can help bring retailers together, but marketing is not the only answer.

At a minimum, councils should strictly enforce rules about the upkeep of empty shops. Some are almost derelict, with letters scattered under the door, and bits of furniture still strewn within the shop. Some landlords do nothing to maintain their empty property, even though it hurts nearby retailers.

Councils, too, could be more imaginative about empty premises. Surely some of our high annual rates could be used to rent community spaces in neighbourhood shopping strips, for artists, business owners, local associations, or those in the community who want a place to meet likeminded people.

Growth in home-based businesses is another opportunity for local councils to bring together owners around neighbourhood shopping zones.

Relaxing parking restrictions, such as excessive clearways, would also help suburban shopping strips, as would stronger, joint marketing efforts led by councils. Retailers, too, could be more proactive in promoting their precinct, although it is not easy when you work 80 hours a week.

So much more could be done to help neighbourhood shopping strips if councils took an innovative, entrepreneurial approach. The last thing Australia needs is to follow the US and UK experience, where there been a decline in suburban shopping strips over the past two decades and ugly malls and bland shopping centres have taken over.

Leave a comment and add your ideas to help neighbourhood shopping strips.