Retail in Fremantle Part Two: Re-imagining our high streets and rebuilding retail

As we saw in “Part One – High Streets are Feeling Low”, there is a global phenomenon of declining high street retail as a result of a multi-pronged threat from rising rents, competition from malls and the growth of online retail. Recent years have seen widespread vacancies along high streets which is further compounding their decline.

A vacant store is a malignant cancer cell to a shopping strip. Where one forms others appear. The malaise spreads and is harder to beat” as Thistleton and Schlesinger put it in the Australian Financial Review earlier this year.

In Part Two, I will examine what experts believe is needed to stop this decline and rebuild retail and pedestrian activity on our high streets. They all seem to agree that the key ingredients are food, authenticity, and providing for locals.

From fashion to food

If there is one thing that all the experts seem to be agreeing on it is that high streets need to be about more than fashion.

Food is becoming more critical,” as high street expert Gilbert Rochecouste said in The Australian. “It is not about fashion anymore; it’s about lifestyle …. Food is central to the reactivation of these streets.”

This is certainly the experience on the East Coast. As Malcolm Gunning, president of the Real Estate Institute of NSW says “… the profile of retail has changed, and not just with the move to online shopping. What customers want has changed. They want a shopping experience. Do you want to walk up and down a strip or go somewhere where you can spend half a day, go shopping, be entertained and get fed?” As a result leasing agents in key high streets such as King Street and Chapel Street in Melbourne are reporting a growing appetite for food outlets.

Similarly in Oxford Street Sydney, Sally Tremlett, co-ordinator at the Paddington Business Partnership concedes: “I don’t think we will ever be a pure fashion strip again. I believe we have a lot more to add to this streetscape than fashion if we are going to succeed. I don’t believe we can reinvent the past; we need to rebrand and recreate the future if we are going to succeed as a high street.

The great strength of fresh and prepared food is it is less well geared than fashion for purchase online and offers a point of resistance to the online threat to traditional retail. As a result the shift to food is no longer just in high streets. Australia’s big shopping centre retailers have also realised that food is overtaking fashion as the favoured destination lifestyle offering, meaning that if high streets are to stay ahead of the game – then the shift to food is likely to be a necessary move, but not a sufficient one. This is where authenticity comes into play.

Make it authentic

What high streets have in their favour is an authenticity and sense of place that shopping malls can never create. Layer this with some passionate and bespoke retail and you have an experience that can’t be replicated.

Whether it be a young fashion designer, a vintage jeweller, a hole-in-the-wall cold-drip coffee shop, or a farmers market – the future is in attracting people with creativity and passion back to the high streets again. Ingham, who has watched the rise and fall of Oxford Street over three decades, believes “You have to want to come here (as a shopper) because there is nothing like it anywhere else. …You need passion. Shopping centres require business models. High streets require passion.”

This is why there is growing demand for locally made and authentic products. Be it artisan bakeries like Bread in Common/Wild Bakery or the likes of Messina Gelato. When I was last in Smith Street, Fitzroy there were queues at 10pm for gelato on a cold Melbourne night – at $6 a scoop!

High quality authentic businesses are performing exceptionally well and can get away with charging close to double for premium versions of a product, simply for the buyer experience and quality on offer.

As high street guru Gilbert Rochecouste says:  “It’s the whole slow food, slow cities, slow concepts; it’s all built around handmade, hand curated…”

I’d add to Rochecouste’s approach words like bespoke/distinctive/local/layered/unique…you get the picture. The future of high streets is doing well what the big box shopping malls will never be able to match.

Provide for locals

Deeply connected to being authentic is simply providing for the needs of local residents and workers. And as retail expert Gilbert Rochecouste put it: “And once the locals come, the rest will follow.’

To make this happen the mix on shopping strips needs to change to make itself appealing to locals again. Central to this premise is the introduction of the “baker’s dozen” – a good-quality bakery, cafe, butcher, florist as well as fruit and vegetable shops – all integral to increasing foot traffic primarily by locals during the week.

Add to this a few more businesses that will appeal to the growing number of high-paid, and probably overworked, inner city residents: health/beauty/massage therapy/relaxation salons, tailors, hair cutters and cafes and you start to get a seven day a week high street back again. To tie it back to where we started: “High streets and town centres that are fit for the 21st century need to be multifunctional social centres,  not simply competitors for stretched consumers. They must offer irresistible opportunities and experiences that do not exist elsewhere, are rooted in the interests and needs of local people, and will meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.” (Action for Market Towns 2011).


I want to finish by returning to Mary Portas whose independent review into the future of high streets in late 2011 has been the foundation for much of the debate on the future of high streets. Her report starts by arguing: “The only hope our high streets have of surviving in the future is to recognise what’s happened and deliver something new”. She later concludes: “High streets are about so much more than shopping. …My vision for the future of high streets is of multifunctional and social places which offer a clear and compelling purpose and experience that’s not available elsewhere, and which meets the interests and needs of the local people.”

I think Mary Portas is right, and the good news is; Fremantle is well placed to make this transition. Out high streets are already about more than fashion and long ago embraced food as part of our retail mix. We do funky, local and authentic well. But there is clearly plenty more to do in Fremantle to make our high streets work again.

In the final and third section I want to look at what needs to be done in Fremantle in particular to bring back our retail diversity.



About Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt's blog
City of Fremantle Mayor

3 Responses to Retail in Fremantle Part Two: Re-imagining our high streets and rebuilding retail

  1. Fremantle has been “cleansed” of community and chose to follow exactly what they are now trying to get rid of.Lets employ a trend forcaster and a decent community minded urban planner.
    lets not make the changes about politics and money and power.lets give its some authenticity,ethics and love. I know love is a word that doesn’t sit in this arena…but lets be brave freo , with that position people will come.

  2. freoishome says:

    Wray Avenue, is a good example of this, one of many local examples. cafés, grocery, butcher/deli, clothing, chemist. I wonder if the success of the growing number of these local activity centres combined with an online presence, will actually increase the demise of the larger activity centres? Why would locals go to the Freo Entertainment precinct, when they have good local cafes? What other attraction does Freo CBD have? The Library, Council Office, railway/bus hub. I keep saying the same thing, ACTIVITY, what can ratepayers and guests DO in the CBD that they can’t do better elsewhere? Events? Freo has the ocean and harbour on its doorstep, is it doing enough to capitalise on these assets. The State Depts certainly aren’t helping, ie, Marine and harbours, PTA, FPA, are doing everything to make life more difficult for Freo. Is Notre Dame an asset or a hindrance? I think CoF would do a far better job of using the non operational parts of the FPA land, than FPA has or ever will. Local Authorities exist for that very purpose unlike Port Authorities, who are just real estate managers and tax collectors.

  3. Genesis says:

    Well put freoishome! Freo needs to capitalise on its assets as a place to provide what other places can’t do so well, (like heritage and culture.) The Harbour is so under appreciated as a place for people, and the east end has great potential for high density/ contempory/ eco friendly residential apartments. More park space (trees) by the river and train station, inviting people to enjoy the visit to freo, to make it an occassion. parking that gives people time and lesuire. People spend money money when feeling comfortable, with clean public toilets for instance and will return if they had an enjoyable time. They won’t return so readily if they get a nasty parking fine. Lots could be done in the short term. When the cash from the mining boom slows up then people will gravitate away from the consumerism of suburban shopping centres, which tend to be a bit soul-less. Freo could outdo the Perth river foreshore project on a fraction of the budget.

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