How Instagram, coffee and curation are helping suburban street retailers fight back
It is just before 6pm on Crown Street in Surry Hills, Sydney.
It is a couple days before Christmas, and office workers are enjoying a some after-work drinks in the leafy surrounds, celebrating the end of the working year.
Inside Title, a “music, film and book” store, manager Ian Underwood is behind the counter slurping some soup.
After some light chit-chat, the ABC asked if he’d been busy.
“Well,” he said, putting his soup on the counter. “It’s 6pm, and I’m only having lunch now — what do you think?”
Mr Underwood’s store is one of a cluster of independent small retailers in the inner-city suburb, selling a range of items from clothing to homewares — or in Mr Underwood’s case, records, books and cultural memorabilia.
These are the type of retailers that, if pundits predicting the death of street retail would have you believe, should have closed down years ago.
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But they’re still here, and in some cases, they’re thriving.
“We just opened a new store at Barangaroo [in the Sydney CBD],” he said. “It’s five-times the size of this one.
“I think it comes down to creating a curated space that people like to come into.
“We have that here.”
No stopping the online rise
Amid muted overall retail sales growth, online sales claimed a record share of total retail turnover of 5.9 per cent for October, up from 5.6 per cent in September.
A year ago online sales accounted for just 4.7 per cent of all sales.
And although — depending on who you talk to — the introduction of global online giant Amazon did not have as big of an impact as some predicted, according to Australian Retailers Association executive director Russell Zimmerman there is little doubt online sales are having an impact.
“It’s a different world out there now,” he said. “It’s an uneven playing field.
“But in regards to small retailers, they’ve got to be nimble. They’ve got to embrace the digital world and adapt.
“Those that don’t will fail, those that do will thrive.”
In Sydney’s former retail precinct of Oxford Street, Paddington fashion and homewares retailer Funkis is one shop doing things a little differently.
First opened in 1996, the retailer then established an online store in 2005 and then moved its headquarters to well-healed eastern Sydney suburb.
Oxford Street itself is a shadow of what it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with shoppers these days tending to hit the nearby Bondi Junction Westfield.
But according to Funkis manager Elina Ek, it is about offering shoppers, as well as locals, an experience.
“We have the cafe out the back,” she said, pointing to the architecturally designed space.
“And most of our in-store collection is made in Sweden, and we also manufacture a lot of the items here in Australia.
“Our customers know this, we have heaps of regulars and they like to come in and touch and feel things.”
She said the shop used social media to help maintain brand loyalty and had an online shop that was “thriving”.
A couple of doors down at fashion store Incu, regional manager Paul Mangila said using social media such as Instagram to compliment its physical store was critical.
“We just finished a collaboration with [online cultural media brand] Brown Cardigan,” Mr Mangila said, as a swarm of Christmas shoppers buzzed around him.
“We actually made brown cardigans.
“That sort of stuff is important. But it’s also about having a curated place where people can come in and know they can find something cool every time they come in”
Locally made, locally bought
It is just after midday on Saturday in Glebe, an inner-west suburb of Sydney.
Next door to Glebe markets, a weekly institution in Sydney, a conga line of Christmas shoppers are walking into a new store on the famous high street.
“It has blown up in the lead-up to Christmas,” The Works Showroom store manager Alex Hunt said.
“We’ve had some great feedback.”
The store, described as a “shared retail space” gives local gift-makers and artisans a retail space to show of their wares.
It is part of the “shop small” movement, where a story is behind the product.
“They can see that their money is going straight to an individual,” she said.
“Like we’ll tell how these earrings are handcrafted by ‘Anthea’ who lives nearby and sets the resin herself.
“People love that, and people love knowing where things come from.
“Someone might buy a candle from Myer and there’s forty of them all over Australia, but here it’s a present you actually thought about.”
Back at Title in Surry Hills, Mr Underwood is helping a customer pick out some CDs and DVDs
“People still buy them,” he said, as he put the soup in the bin.
“I think street retail can keep going if you know your customer.
“I have regulars come in and I ask them ‘hey, I haven’t seen you for a while’.
“One of them goes to me: well I live in New Zealand, I make sure I come in here and get something every time I come to Sydney.
“For me, that’s the best evidence you can get.”