Is there a future for the high street in Australia?

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Peter Weir’s cult classic The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) depicts an Australia where unemployment has risen so high and economic disparity has become so great that the economy has begun to shift from capitalism to something even more sinister. While the stagflation that inspired Weir’s dark comedy eventually moderated, the current economic situation sparked by the ongoing global pandemic has raised new concerns. These days, the focus is on fears surrounding the survival of the high street in the face of increasing competition from online retailers.

The fall of British high street stalwarts Debenhams and the Arcadia Group — owners of Topshop and Miss Selfridges, among others — and their  purchase by online retail giants Boohoo and ASOS has frightened other high street business owners around the world. Similarly, the loss of more than 20,000 jobs as brick and mortar stores were abandoned in favour of a strictly online presence has caused retail workers to question the long-term viability of their positions. Fears about the death of the high street have been a talking point for years at this point, and the high street, though occasionally struggling, continues to survive. Thriving, however, will require changes.

Diversification will most likely be the factor that determines whether high street businesses will survive; competing against massive global retailers will need to be done at least partially on their own turf. Having a strong internet presence and an easy-to-use shopping interface will allow high street retailers to challenge the supremacy of companies like Amazon. The past year  has shown how much is possible in this direction. Not only have many schools and jobs moved online or to a hybrid system, attractions such as museums, theatres and music venues have found ways to digitise their collections and performances. We have seen that people are willing to pay for tickets to watch a film or a concert from home. Retail shops need to learn from this past year and adapt to doing business in a society that is becoming increasingly more comfortable functioning in a hybrid online/in person world.

The success of the diversified model can already be seen in other industries, exemplified with the case of SkyCity Casino. SkyCity Entertainment Group is one of the most successful gambling companies operating in Australia and New Zealand. Since the opening of their first casino in Auckland in 1996, the group has opened an array of resorts across New Zealand and Australia as well. The group has created an advantageous entertainment and hospitality empire centred around their physical casinos. Their decision to open an  online casino in New Zealand in 2019 was a prescient one. Since customers were already familiar with SkyCity’s traditional casinos, their online counterpart was trusted from the beginning and has already become one of the most popular online casinos in the southern hemisphere.

Saving the high street may also require a refocusing from the global to the local. For so long, the emphasis has been on being able to get anything and everything as easily and quickly as possible. At this point, however, it is nearly impossible for individual retailers to compete with Amazon. The environmental benefits of eating local has already sparked a popular movement and shopping local could be the boost high streets need. Converting the massive, shuttered department stores into spaces where multiple independent local boutiques and artisans can have retail space would be a great way to keep businesses in the city centre without relying on individual large-scale retailers. The success of handmade and vintage goods site Etsy has demonstrated that consumers are willing to pay more for handmade goods when purchasing from independent retailers.

Alongside reimagining what type of retail businesses belong on the high street, is the need to look into alternative ways to draw people in. Making the high street a place to be rather than just somewhere you must go would make it a more attractive destination. This would require investment from all levels of government, but the potential benefits would surely outweigh the costs. Community spaces — in the form of parks, galleries or shared art studios and workspaces — could make high streets more appealing spaces. Once consumers are already out and about, there is less of a reason to shop online.

Unlike the citizens of Weir’s fictional town of Paris, there is a hopeful future in sight for us. Australia’s high streets have the potential to survive, and even thrive, if business owners and community members can adapt and modernise to overcome the challenges they currently face.

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