Government at all levels must help stop the retail reckoning

clothing retailers

I like Melbourne retail. A lot.

My feeling whenever I’m in town is it’s a genuine retail town. So is London town, the twenty central arrondissements of Paris and all of Dubai — from the moment you step onto the airbridge upon arrival at DXB to the moment you sit back in your airline seat before pushback on departure. Through a natural process of trade, the two European capitals have built a culture, planning and commercial expertise between the administrators of the cities and their business communities. They’ve done it for more than 500 years.

In Dubai, it was ruler Sheik Mohammed Al Maktoum who accelerated the vision of his father Sheik Rashid in positioning Dubai as the place to stop and shop in the early days of cheap, long-haul jet travel. Together the two Al Maktoum generations created the clear vision and conditions that allowed the major Dubai trading families to build a global retail wonder from the deserts of Dubai. In less than 40 years.

In Melbourne, I believe it’s because three levels of government — state, city and local council — irrespective of which party is in power, have shared a common clear vision of how their city should look and feel. They’ve held that vision for more than 100 years, thus allowing Melbourne’s business community to build a world-class retail city.

The business community only needs clarity, consistency and low bureaucracy to thrive. Business people, including developers and landlords, don’t need handouts. They apply their capital to birth their idea and embrace the risk of the market to grow. They just don’t need the added risk of rule makers changing their minds or creating time and cost barriers that suck the life out of new or transitioning businesses.  

To be clear, the whole of global retailing has been transitioning from pure physical to mixed physical and online for the past two decades, with another decade (the toughest one) still to go. I use the analogy that the body of physical retail is fighting a fever, but it isn’t dying. It’s gradually building up an immunity to an online virus that began to infect it in 1999, the year Amazon was born. It will survive. It will have lost 30% of its weight, slimmed its physical appearance, and like all good hosts, be stronger with the online virus now part of its evolved DNA.

Over the next decade, retailers, landlords and redevelopers will need the active support of all layers of government to assist in the global retail transition. Easier zoning to support mixed-use redevelopment. Active participation with businesses of all sizes in public transport planning. Less bureaucracy and more genuine partnership to regenerate inner and outer city suburbs.

Melbourne and the Gold Coast, this partnership approach is in your DNA. Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth, you’re okay at it. Sydney, I love you dearly, but you have a history of adversarial, difficult and ever-changing planning and zoning laws. If councils don’t improve this partnership approach it’s likely at the end of this decade, Melbourne will have held onto a greater share of physical retail, have a more vibrant streetscape and be the largest city in Australia.

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