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What’s with (no) pop up in Richmond ?

Another in our occasional series on the pop up precincts of Melbourne… we re-visited Bridge Road Richmond, then took a stroll along Swan Street…

 

Goodness me ! Has it really been 5+ years since we discussed the pop up scene on Bridge Road… and we’ve never made a comment on nearby Swan Street ? Tsk, tsk – it seemed a visit was ‘way overdue !

Richmond is only a short distance from the CBD, and home to two of the most iconic shopping strips around Melbourne. For many years it had two distinct precincts – the bustling activity of Bridge Road and the (much) quieter Swan Street. But in recent years… the tables have turned.

20 years ago Bridge Road was “the” Melbourne destination for factory and brand-name outlets… it was renown for good-value shopping, and hugely popular. Over the weekends and at peak times it attracted bus-loads of visitors – literally. Bridge Road was on the tourist circuit… eager shoppers arrived in their hundreds, many making that ‘strip their main reason for a quick visit to Melbourne.

But then things changed. The popularity and reputation of Bridge Road enticed landlords to raise their rents (not hard to do, when the retailers were doing so well and there was no shortage of new businesses waiting for an opening) – which meant those shops had to stay busy to cover their higher costs. What the landlords and retailers of Bridge Road didn’t anticipate was the arrival of alternate brand-outlet destinations… Factory outlet centres started to flourish in the suburbs – closer to the customers, providing even more value-for-money shopping options – and at better terms for the retailers. The unique offering and character of Bridge Road was threatened…

And retail itself became something else – suburban shopping malls improved their attraction with acres of parking, food courts and entertainment, more incentives to linger… the majors seemed to have year-round stocktake / start-of-season / just-for-the-hell-of-it brand name sales… and of course nowadays savvy shoppers usually find the best deals just sitting at home anyway, browsing online. So why trudge into Richmond to find a bargain ? Over recent years many of those original, iconic brand outlets have left the Bridge Road ‘strip, while others have hopped from one shop to another or down-sized as they negotiated better deals with landlords. While the changes have been devastating – response from property owners, agents, the council and other stake-holders has been slow, and under-whelming.

I heard a comment recently, from someone who’s pretty-well connected in local issues. She told me how one of the traders associations (or was it the council ?) had paid more than $20,000 to a consultancy, with the brief to improve short-term opportunities around Richmond… But nothing eventuated… “nothing at all, it was a complete waste of money” she said, rolling her eyes regretfully…

Running parallel to Bridge Road, just a kilometer away, is Swan Street…While Bridge Road was surging with visitors in the 1990’s, Swan Street was always more “local” and offered traditional suburban shopping. There just were a few banks, a supermarket and a quirky low-cost department store, assorted family businesses and a couple of pubs. Swan Street had a different character to Bridge Road then, and (thankfully) still does.

Even now, both precincts seem to offer good potential for pop up shopping. Bridge Road has loads of empty spaces and a fair number of shoppers (but not like the old days….). Swan Street still has a community vibe, and is popular with local residents, workers and visitors. The cafes and bars around Swan Street are buzzing…

This week I took a stroll around both precincts, noting the For Lease signs and vacant spaces. Swan Street has it’s share of empty shops – I counted 14 between the rail bridge near Punt Road and Coppin Street (1.2kms). Those spaces are nestled between thriving cafes and barbers, a few clothes boutiques and a variety of businesses. The character of Swan Street is “hipster” I suppose… urban and easy-going. Across in Bridge Road it’s a different story – I counted 45 spaces vacant or for lease between Punt Road and Burnley Street (1.7kms).

On 13th January The Age published an article comparing the fortunes of the two precincts – Richmond’s “ugly duckling” Swan Street outshines nearby Bridge Road. That article quoted vacancy rates of 5.7% for Swan Street (“one of the city’s most in-demand strips”) and 21.4% for Bridge Road.*

The comparison isn’t quite as extreme as it appears… tenancies along Bridge Road are numerous and seem narrower (ie. there are more, smaller tenancies on Bridge Road ?) – and the vacancies appear fairly consistently spread along the 1.7km ‘strip.

But what is certainly different is the number of vacant shops not being offered for lease on Bridge Road, but instead standing empty… I appreciate there’s already a forest of For Lease signs, and maybe the income isn’t important to many of those landlords (perhaps they prefer to have a property vacant than reduce the rent…?) But surely property owners have an interest in keeping their investments attractive and vibrant – I’d say that leaving shops empty can’t be good for the character or future of a precinct. With fewer trading stores, surrounding businesses will feel the effect of fewer visitors – and before long those businesses also suffer and move out. In the longer term, a landlord sitting on an empty property will lose more than a little rent…

On my travels around Richmond I came across just one small pop up store (RWA Melbourne, at 273 Swan Street). Pop up owner Rosemary opened her shop around 8 weeks ago and is having a great time… selling her own label of Melbourne-made women’s fashion from what is really just a nook. It’s not a big-budget affair but she’s using the space well, and thrilled to see customers return or recommend the business to friends…

So why aren’t there more pop up entrepreneurs like Rosemary around Richmond ? I would’ve thought the inner-city location, a wide variety of retailers and activities, a generally-youthful (and cashed-up) demographic, good public transport and loads of space options would attract many more short-term businesses. Maybe those businesses just don’t consider Richmond (especially Bridge Road) – given the reputation of expensive real estate and poor foot traffic.

Bridge Road and Swan Street should be among the best strip-shopping precincts of Melbourne…but they’re not pop up destinations. Couldn’t that turn around quickly ? Surely with more support from council, local traders and their associations – and just a few landlords opening their minds (and doors)… the pop up scene around Richmond might quickly change. And in turn – prospects for those precincts, and longer-term business opportunities – may improve…

 

* source :   The Age.com.au – Richmond’s tale of two roads.  

 

 Bridge Road is struggling - image The Age

Swan Street is one of Melbourne's booming retail strips - image The Age

 

 images :    The Age – Richmond two roads…

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