If a central business district is the beating heart of a city, Perth might be in need of medical assistance.
Empty shops, dirty footpaths, abandoned dreams, dull expressions. If there was life in Perth’s central malls, it is long gone. Even Basil Zempilas, who became lord Mayor late last year, says the city centre has to be cleaned up. “The look, the smell, the language, the fights – it’s disgusting,” he wrote in the West Australian newspaper. “A blight on our city and the single biggest impediment to progress and rejuvenation.”
That’s what he said 12 months ago and not much has changed in the central retail precinct since then.
Edith Cowan University business academic Dr Claire Lambert agrees the city has lost his sparkle. “It was once unique and distinctive but (is now) becoming more generic,” she says. “It should also be noted that the city centre held a lot of appeal amongst tourists but with the current travel restrictions in place, this has really had a significant impact on the city.”
Also making things difficult for city retailers is the transformation of suburban shopping centres like the newly redeveloped Karrinyup Shopping Centre. The $800 million project has introduced cinemas, restaurants and a games precinct to a huge variety of shops.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Basil Zempilas told ECU Vanguard. “I’ve seen the development in Karrinyup… the queues of people and the new offering. The shopping centres are very competitive in this space and often that’s about the shops (but) also the experience and things like free parking for example.”
Melbourne-based retail expert Luke Ritchie says providing an experience for shoppers is vital to modern retail success. “Experience is something that stores can provide which online cannot,” Mr Ritchie says. “Humans are social creatures and yearn for contact with others. So stores will always retain primacy in retail. The better stores become at not just being sales locations, but also fulfilment locations, experience centre and return locations, the more they will attract customers.”
Claire Lambert agrees. “Offering leisure experiences will also mean people will stay longer at the shopping centre, making use of more of the facilities and spending more.”
But she doesn’t believe the CBD should necessarily be competing directly with shopping centres. “Typically, customers who shop in the city are different to those that shop in the suburbs,” Dr Lambert says. “I think you will find the city shoppers will still be the businessperson who might grab the odd gift here and there as they are in the city for their work commitments during the week. On the weekend however, these business shoppers may more likely purchase a greater volume of their gifts from visiting a suburban shopping centre for the advantages they offer. Suburban shopping centres are more convenient, more of a one-stop shop where you can purchase your gifts from a range of different retailers over a few hours and easily go back to your car to drop off your purchases as you continue to shop.”
She says the city needs to be more than a shopping centre: “It needs to offer things you cannot get elsewhere.”
Basil Zempilas concedes the city centre needs to find its own identity. “The city has to continue to find its own individual style and its own individual offering,” he says. “The shopping centres don’t have Elizabeth Quay, they don’t have the Museum. They don’t have Kings Park, they don’t have the Mary Street Mall or Forrest Place and they don’t have the great range of things so closed.
“So what the city has to do is continue to be its own entity. We have to be safer, we have to be cleaner, we have to be friendlier. We’ve got to be able to match that wonderful experience, but we have to make sure that what we’re doing or offering in the city is something that’s not being offered anywhere else.
“We can be equally amazing in our own way and I think CBDs around the world have always found a way to survive and to adapt and that has to be our job.”
Luke Ritchie is optimistic about the future of city centres and retail in general. “Retailers are responding with new ways of connecting to their people, with investments in digital solutions to help maintain connected to team members,” he says.
Claire Lambert agrees. “Personally the retail sector did a great job in responding to COVID where we saw business overnight reinvent themselves to cater to this pandemic and the challenges it presented,” she says. “Retail is generally a very creative and dynamic industry and they have tapped into these capabilities during these challenging times.”
As long as the heart is still beating, there is hope for Perth’s CBD.