After more than 150 years serving Melbourians with local fruit and veg, Victoria’s longest-standing 19th-century retail institution, Queen Victoria Market, is shaking things up.
The heritage-listed market is going online, this week launching a partnership between 25 of its grocery stall owners and e-commerce startup YourGrocer which will see market produce delivered to shoppers’ front doors.
From fish and poultry to fruit, bread and wine, market administrators are looking to get with the times, amid ongoing competition from major supermarkets and other online players.
It’s not an easy time to be a retailer — much less the owner of a market stall, and for a trading group that’s survived everything from the invention of automobiles to smartphones, change is nothing new.
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But as companies such as Woolworths and Coles flirt with artificial intelligence and businesses such as Aldi leverage global supply chains to keep prices down, independents face some pressing challenges.
The council-owned market’s chief executive, Stan Liacos, who was brought in about 18 months ago to oversee a rejuvenation agenda, has won supporters and detractors among the 600 or so business owners populating the market.
“We’re trying to take a 19th-century traditional market and turn it towards the 21st-century customer,” he tells SmartCompany.
Liacos remains a “firm believer” in traditional retail, but says adding online to the mix is ultimately something the market needs to modernise.
“It’s the inevitable way to go,” he says.
“There’s a lot of Melbournians no longer visiting, this is a way to progressively regain market share.”
Under the partnership, Melbourne-based startup YourGrocer will collect orders from traders and oversee delivery — same-day will be an option if orders are placed before 11am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Times are a-changing
The City of Melbourne has earmarked $250 million for renewing Queen Victoria Market — a program that’s seen a variety of changes in the precinct lately, including the re-development of some parts of the market.
Queen Victoria’s ‘night market’ has also been expanded to run year-round and has been supported by marketing as administrators look to position themselves as a trendy evening spot in Melbourne’s CBD.
But bringing all of the market traders along for the ride has proved more difficult. Some have criticised Liacos and market administrators for what they see as a failure to listen to their longstanding grievances and for prioritising the night market over struggling day traders.
Several store owners SmartCompany spoke with on Monday evening weren’t optimistic about the future of the market and said moving into e-commerce wasn’t very high on their priority lists.
“[Online] is where things are headed, but it won’t fix our situation,” one trader, who asked not to be named, explains.
Lobby group Friends of Queen Victoria Market, a longstanding critic of the current administrators, has responded to the announcement by highlighting ongoing issues within the trading group.
“The QVM CEO insists that operational changes are ‘all about the customers’ yet persistently fails to grasp the causal connection between traders’ despair and half-empty sheds,” the group said in a Facebook post last weekend.
The group is calling for equal resources to be put into the day market and night market, while reiterating its view administrators lack retail experience.
It is also opposing a proposal to expand the market’s operating hours, allowing it to trade later into the evening, worried already stressed business owners will be incentivised to work more.
Liacos says “no change is not an option” for the market as it looks to find a sustainable future, arguing a balance must be struck between the nostalgia of Queen Victoria Market’s history and the need to modernise.
“Nostalgia is a great thing, but it’s not the basis of a commercial strategy,” he says.
Others are more optimistic and say Liacos has done a better job than previous administrators in managing the diverse views of business owners while charting a future for the market.
George Scenna, owner of market-based Rare Organics, is participating in the YourGrocer program, saying he’s feeling positive about the initiative.
“The market definitely needs to be modernised,” Scenna tells SmartCompany.
“This is just one of those steps in the right direction.”
YourGrocer will be taking a cut under the partnership. Scenna says it’ll be up for about 25% of every online sale he makes.
“It will be cheaper to come into the market. I’m trying to keep most of the range at market prices though,” he says.
But Scenna hopes having an online presence will encourage more visitors to the day market itself.
“Things have to change,” he says.
“The portal and website, something like that has to be available.
“A lot of traders have been there quite a while … some people are a bit stuck in the past.”