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With few signs of the death of the mall, small retailers deserve our support

Small retailers are doing it tough and need more government support.

The rise in internet-based retailing has inevitably generated debate on the future of bricks-and-mortar shops, and the shopping centres that accommodate them.

Despite some pundits predicting the death of the mall, there’s no strong signs as yet of the “mall lifecycle” coming to an end.

In fact many domestic shopping centres, such as Melbourne’s Chadstone and Sydney’s Bondi Junction, continue to evolve through extensions or major revamps.

Despite tough times on the high street, developers here and overseas can be seen to be raising the game – and heightening the experience – for consumers, with a new generation of super-malls.

Westfield’s Stratford City development near London, for example, proves that an alluring mix of brands, services, entertainment and promotion, housed within prestige development still holds great attraction for customers.

In Australia, a recent Productivity Commission report highlighted the challenges for retailers and centre operators in negotiating leasing arrangements. In particular, suggested that smaller retailers can experience difficulties in terms of establishing presence within established shopping centres.

“While it is possible for these retailers to vote with their feet and move to shopping strips or other locations, the alternatives sites are not always commercially attractive,” the report said.

It’s important in the current challenging retail climate not to overlook the significance of – or the challenges faced by – these smaller retailers.

Local retail plays an important role in creating differentiation and local character in what can be sometimes perceived as a retail “bland-scape”.

Key industry groups, such the Australian Retailers Association do a great job in championing small and independent retailers. Yet, a greater understanding of the challenges faced by this diverse sector is both essential and timely.

I recently attended a local chamber of commerce retail event in regional Victoria, and presented to an audience of local retail owner-operators.

Despite the presence of a mid-sized shopping centre near to the main strip, the high street traders were, overall, resilient and optimistic. They were confident in the point of differentiation that their retail mix offered, although they had experienced the consequences of the slowdown in consumer spending.

But when asked about their own professional competence and development, only a scant few could claim to have received any specific training or education in relation to merchandise management, pricing, promotion or marketing – the cornerstones of effective retailing.

A central marketing and promotion fund for the location had only very recently been approved, following some resistance from local business owners.

I wonder how much more effective and successful they could be with smarter, localised “push and pull” marketing strategies, and with the technical expertise and tools to leverage profitability within their individual businesses.

It’s great to see some active debate on these issues, with contributions being sought for the Small Business Victoria discussion paper which canvasses policy, program and service initiatives and seeks feedback on the issues and challenges facing this sector.

In the same way that shopping centres leverage economies of scale in terms of visitation, marketing, multi-channel promotion, branding and tenant education, it’s important that our other shopping centres – the strips, town centres and rural and regional destinations – don’t get left behind in the race for space or the move online.

It’s vital, therefore, that governments and associations continue to facilitate this discourse, and foster collaboration, learning and evolution to preserve, promote and grow local retail competence.

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