Something is stirring in middle Australia. It seems to me that the commercial heartlands of our towns and suburbs are being transformed by megatrends coming out of the pandemic.
I see vastly fewer newsagents, bookstores and even cafes that were once the mainstay of our shopping strips. Milk bars disappeared a generation ago and the old-style hardware stores are vanishing too. And long gone are edgy specialty stores, quirky haberdasheries and one-off repair shops.
More recently, banks, supermarkets and petrol stations have been wildly reimagined. Banks now have concierges. Supermarkets sell phone plans. Hardware has been redesigned as a big box on the edge of town. Bookshops exist and thrive in airports but rarely elsewhere.
There was a time when every regional town had a department store, typically owned by a local family. Such stores no longer exist. In their place have come discount department stores and big-box retailers whose next logical step, I am sure, is to operate entirely without the “cost burden” of in-store staff. And is there anything quite as depressing as the experience of wandering into the once-thriving food court of a CBD office building? Every darkened space represents a livelihood that fell afoul of the work-from-home megatrend.
But the great transformation of Australia’s commercial heartland goes beyond the retail experience. You can see it in all the new businesses and energies buzzing about on the edge of town. The repurposing of industrial space, especially in regional centres, is a clear trend. Partly that’s down to the pandemic, which was the trigger for many city types (and their businesses) to relocate to lifestyle towns. The renewed support for local manufacturers, and the rise of online shopping, also feed into the burgeoning demand for industrial space to store and distribute stuff. What I find interesting about this trend is the way sudden popularity makes dull industrial sheds sound interesting. That’s not a warehouse; that’s a fulfilment centre. That’s not an industrial park; that’s an “arts, artisans & industry facility”. Today these spaces are often glammed up with a micro-brewery or, better still, a gin distillery.
This is how I see our cities, towns and regions changing. For decades it was the high street, the shopping centre and the CBD office tower that set the agenda for society; these were the places where we lived, worked and shopped. But technology was already changing the way we shopped prior to the pandemic. And we Australians always had a penchant for the pursuit of lifestyle. Then along came the pandemic, which sparked a series of transformations in the Australian way of life; exactly how this plays out is yet to be seen.
But I have to say it’s all very engaging to witness. I’ve always admired the industrial precincts of our provincial towns; now, these places are where the entrepreneurial energy of post-pandemic Australia appears to be surging.
In some ways industrial estates are the new high street. They contain core businesses. But they are also places where new businesses can be incubated, and where middle Australia will get a chance to pursue a dream and to create wealth and prosperity for the future.