In the last five years, an expert-led strategy has transformed Melbourne CBD retailing into something quite special. Melbourne Retail Strategy 2006:2012 is the product of a planned approach resulting in great diversity.

But Crikey understands that the City of Melbourne has taken a decision that could inadvertently kill off the goose that laid the golden egg. Perhaps they feel that city retail centres build themselves.

In most Australian capitals, the only thing that differentiates a CBD and a shopping mall is the lack of a roof.

But in Melbourne’s CBD, the usual suspects — Myer, DJ, Sportsgirl, Country Road, Witchery et al — are now accompanied by others in small arcades and lanes or in low rent, above-awning real estate. Down alleys and up stairs are stores offering up young designers’ wares and recycled clothing; it’s where the fashion-forward hunt for next year’s look. New cafes abound and Melbourne has become famous for uber stylish bars that lurk behind anonymous doors, populated by denizens of the night.

There is an element of a treasure hunt and there is often passion and theatre. Vacancy rates have lowered and the city is spreading west into the docklands. The CBD mix is very different from anodyne malls in the ‘burbs. Other Australian capitals have watched with interest, unable to offer an experience like Melbourne.

Led by the City Council, a committee made of representatives from big and small retail, Town Planners and Architects, owners and tenants, and State and Local Government planned the transformation of the city. Their mission was to have Melbourne renowned globally as Australia’s leading retail city. The key change was the shared realisation that the city needed to offer more than shops and offices, and it had to be appealing outside of the core business hours.

It worked. The best measure of the success of this project is that Sydney hotel rooms are, on average, cheaper at the weekend than midweek. In Melbourne, weekend rooms are more expensive.

The transformation spawned a new industry, the deck of secrets, (a Melbourne venture that went around Australia and is now going offshore) and hidden secrets tours.

The reinvigoration of Melbourne was largely driven by the passion and work ethic of a small team at the City of Melbourne. But as a result of recommendations made in an Ernst & Young report last year, the organisation sought to find efficiencies in its staff numbers rather than a strategy for change.

Now Crikey has heard that the team has become under-resourced and is disassembling as the Council tries to find its focus as a capital city government. One insider said: “So many staff have gone. The pursuit of efficiency has resulted in a loss of focus.”

The rejuvenation of the City Council is now being steered by Dr Kathy Alexander who was appointed in early 2008. How she moves the organisation forward from a tumultuous year and what this will mean for Melbourne’s retail identity remains to be seen.

Major stakeholders are rightly proud of the strategy’s outcomes and remain keen, but without help from city hall, the rejuvenation of Melbourne will wither and everything they say in Sydney might be true.

Rob Lake publishes Brandish – Retail Intelligence, a fortnightly newsletter about things retail. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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