Retail Innovation in Sydney – a few examples

Hi All,

I hope the last couple of weeks have been good for all, certainly getting much closer to winter down here, a time of the year I love to loathe even though I am, every year without exception, reminded by my fellow northern hemisphere buddies that this thing they call winter down here is a joke. It’s true. It’s not the temperature that gets to me, it’s the short days!

As I log onto wordpress to get the next blog post drafted up and ready to publish, I’ve developed the habit of looking through the ‘comments’ section on the admin interface. It won’t surprise you that I don’t have that many legitimate comments, i.e. from real people in the universe somewhere, but instead I seem to be the recipient of a whole stack of nonsense sent through a variety of spam machines throughout the world. The alleged email addresses these come from are pretty telling ‘buy viagra now’ (hummm… I hadn’t thought of that), or ‘rent kinky video’ or ‘low rate porn’ are a pretty big giveaway but I do get the odd automatically generated email from roofers and plumbers. There is clearly much about the world of spam that I simply do not comprehend…

Now back on track, I would like to write a bit about what I’ve been finding around the traps in terms of retail in Sydney. I opened the ‘News Review’ section of the SMH Saturday week end paper to find, yet again, that retail figures are down, downtown. The article contrasted this with the rise in capital expenditure in the mining industry, a boon that seems to have no end in sight (not true). To be honest, the juxtaposition was a bit misleading, they were actually comparing investment in mining with percentage growth in retail. You can’t really compare apples with pears, but the article still tries. Anyway.

Retail. Ah, the forgotten sector, the poor cousin, the unloved industry. Publications multiply on the topic. Why do our retailers have it so hard? What should we be doing to boost retail figures? When will the retail slump end? In all fairness, they’re quite good questions but I fear we’ve got answers for many of these. There was a feature in the unmissable Wentworth Courrier last week about Bondi and Oxford Street retailers. One man in particular, who had owned a shop on Campbell Parade for the past 38 years and had not changed a thing about it in that time, could not comprehend where he had gone amiss. I could imagine him telling the jour no: “I don’t get it, I haven’t changed the formula, why did it stop working?” Well sadly my friend, not changing the formula and expecting people to buy shoes today, on Campbell Parade, the same way they bought them 38 years ago is a bit naive. It’s not only the stock though, and the quality and selection of the product, but also the whole experience. I can’t imagine any of the hipster surfers of Bondi would sacrifice their hard earned style for the sake of loyalty to local retail. Fashion just doesn’t work that way these days, does it?

I am also witnessing the retail crisis in person, all along Oxford Street actually, where a total of 34 stores are vacant from Hyde Park to Jersey Road. To my great regret, this also includes the Academy Twin, which I would love to see converted into an indoor market and gallery space, but it also includes a series of pretty nondescript white boxes with a glass front, nothing to go rolling around in the mud for. I admit, I used to feel a pang of pity for the landlords and their overworked real estate brokers when walking past the ‘to lease’ signs but I’ve found that talking to local retailers has actually shed a lot of light on why some shops aren’t leased at the moment.

In particular, the old Puma store, at the corner of Barcom Avenue and Oxford Street, yes, the one with the awesome curved glass window has been empty for a couple months. More recently its neighbours have also vacated, leaving a whole string of tenancies free for the keen shopkeeper. I used to think that this was the direct and scientifically provable effect of breaking retail’s golden rule: locate next to busy shops that sell similar gear to you to pick up their footfall. So I concluded (it turns out erroneously) that one Puma got out, the rest of the stores (some of them shoe stores) just suffered the impact of reduced footfall. Far from it my friends, far from it! The Puma store and all its neighbours up to Sportsgirl are all part of the same property and the owner wants to turn the whole lots into a series of bars and night venues. So what I thought was economic despair was actually more reinvention and investment. How wrong one can be.

In the meantime, the landlords are apparently trying to line up a number of temporary, or pop-up tenants, to utilise the space in the meantime, which I always interpreted as a sign of desperate times for retail landlords. What I am slowly realising is that pop-up constitutes an apt transition strategy from one use to another. It’s low investment, low maintenance, low return. Maybe not such a bad equation after all.

This is what Oxford St Design Store is all about. I can’t for the life of me remember what was in its spot before this pop-up started but I will definitely remember this concept. Their website is pretty basic (they’re working on a new one I am told) but the concept goes as follows:

Established as a unique retail experience the Design Store is a place for local designers, artists, creative and writers to sell their work with one condition – nothing can be sold for more than $20. Get involved! Send your ideas

So, there are several things I like in this: the idea that it can be a forum to showcase local and affordable design that is not the MCA shop (as much as I love it) or the AGNSW’s shop (good DVDs there) but it also crowd sources products from the local community. Their stock is limited but there were some pretty nice notebooks, posters, t-shirts and lego jewellery in there. Now, let’s be clear, it’s not the best design store in the world, far from it, but the idea is kind of neat. It has been seed funded by the Awesome Foundation I am told and will also include co-working desks, free-wifi, and a screen-printer. I couldn’t help myself, I suggested to the shop manager that she invest in a great expresso machine as a basic and found a way of getting a print-on-demand machine on site as well. Let’s see what she does about it.

In an odd way, it reminded me of Xin Dan Wei, a great co-working space I came across with the help of friend and colleague Xin Gu from QUT. Xin Dan Wei is more about co-working than it is about retail but the flexibility and agility of the model is what both have in common, at the most superficial level.

The real trick with these is really to get a bunch of designers, architects, t-shirt printers, producers and journalists to think about business models. At the risk of sounding militantly capitalist (which I probably am), the true business opportunity needs to be fleshed out for these things to survive beyond the initial seed funding. I think the City of Sydney’s strategy to offer spaces at lower rates is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. Most retail rents are bananas as far as I am concerned, but I think the support perhaps could extend beyond that into business courses, MYOB, advice on how to design supply chains, a retail experience, what overheads are, etc etc etc. This kind of retail innovation is great, but only if we get to enjoy it for a little bit of time.

It actually reminds me of the conversations that were going around at MakeSpace4Architecture last week end in the Rocks. MakeSpace has been awarded this amazing space in a sandstone building on George St but what good is it to have a space with nothing to put in it and nothing to activate it? It’s amazing to realise how much work is invisible in a retail or gallery experience, as Tarsha Finney rightly pointed out. There are months and years of planning, administration and bureaucracy to deal with. It’s not something you can just pop-up overnight.

So I guess, to some extent, I greatly enjoy the variety and surprise of pop-up retail, but I wonder whether it sets unrealistic expectations of the ‘business’ skills needed to run any commercial operation. How do we take this to the next level?

A number of alternatives present themselves here with a few examples in the Oxford Street vicinity itself! A local designer, Sally Smith, left her Glenmore road shopfront a bit over a year ago to set up shop in her own studio on Comber Street. It’s a great experience when she opens it up to the public twice a month. Not only does she unveil the latest and greatest of her collection (often made with vintage fabrics) but she also offers incredibly personalised care. She knows what you bought from her last time, she can take up a dress then and there at no extra cost, she can measure you up to make this perfect top a bit longer and in the colour you’d really been eyeing off all winter. It’s what retail should be. A great experience.

In addition to all that, she also lets you see the process of making, the process of putting a dress or garment together, a craft that has long been lost in dress shops. Call me old fashioned, but I think there is something to it.

In the retail innovation category, there is also good old garage sales. You gotta love those. They’re quite frequent in Paddington and of surprisingly good quality. As they say: “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure”.

On this note, I will leave to ponder about retail. Let’s talk again soon.


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