Mon, Jul 17, 2017 - Page 14 News List

Australian malls diversify in the face of stiff competition

AFP, SYDNEY

As Australia’s local merchants struggle with an influx of global names, leading malls are considering returning to their village-center roots to woo new tenants by moving away from shops and offering medical facilities, more restaurants and even amusement parks.

Several top retailers have succumbed to pressure from foreign giants such as Japan’s Uniqlo and Sephora of France, and with Amazon.com Inc plotting its debut in the nation, the future looks tough.

The response from developers has been to redefine the mall away from a “shopping” focus to become a more community-driven service and entertainment space.

While cafes and restaurants have long helped attract shoppers to malls, they are now filling shopping centers, providing some buzz even as an eerie quiet fills some nearby clothing stores.

With the big global names pouring huge sums of cash into the nation, once-popular clothing chains such as David Lawrence, Pumpkin Patch, Herringbone and Rhodes & Beckett have bitten the dust, while others scramble to reduce costs.

This has included cutting back on brick-and-mortar stores and steering center owners toward food, entertainment, healthcare and childcare providers.

Major landlords such as Vicinity and Westfield spin-off Scentre, which this year have seen their share prices slip to one or two-year lows, are already redeveloping their arcades.

Vicinity’s Chadstone Shopping Centre in Melbourne — Australia’s largest mall — is now the site of the southern hemisphere’s first massive amusement park, Legoland.

The company is also tapping into newer technologies such as facial recognition to identify consumers through their age and gender and analyze their shopping habits.

“What we are seeing is the malls starting to pivot away from commodity-type products ... toward retailers that offer a service which isn’t physical,” real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield’s retail investments head Nick Potter said.

“Shopping centers are the modern village, it’s where everyone comes together. These centers are typically located in the center of towns, they’ve got strong infrastructure ... and that offers up the ability to move with the times,” he added.

The move is a return to the vision of Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born American who in the 1950s developed the concept of the arcade as a public space akin to the marketplace of centuries past, where civic life played a central role.

Adding to the shift is the growth of online shopping, which offers shoppers the same options, but with the added bonus of not being subject to general sales tax for anything less than A$1,000 (US$783).

Canberra has sought to end the loophole by imposing a 10-percent levy from July next year, but the lower margins for online stores such as eBay and ASOS still makes them attractive.

While online shopping is estimated to make up a little more than 10 percent of total retail sales, future arrivals such as Amazon could change that.

“If [online shopping] jumps up in a big way, how does that affect bricks and mortar? Maybe all shopping centers just become cafes,” University of Technology Sydney accounting expert David Bond said.

“You’ll probably see it move more toward just products being sold online versus services, cafes, cinemas, game centers and creches [at malls],” he said.

The University of Canberra’s Lisa Scharoun, who analyzes the cultural role of shopping centers in societies, has seen the changes firsthand, with more than half of her local mall now filled with restaurants and cafes.

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