Traders in Byron Bay and Bangalow are emerging from what might have been the worst winter for business since the global financial crisis, with ‘for lease’ signs proliferating in the usually busy tourist towns.
In Byron Bay two businesses have recently closed in the popular Feros Arcade alone, including Reflections of Byron, which promoted itself as ‘one of Byron Bay’s oldest and best known gift and homewares shops.’
In Bangalow, where shopfronts are usually highly sought after, four shops currently stand empty.
Long-time fashion retailer Designbank closed its doors over winter, as did funky new bookshop Poet.
And Elders Real Estate has moved from a large shopfront in the heart of Byron Street to the Readings Building on the edge of town, where a hardware store closed earlier in the year.
Various reasons have been offered as to why the shake-up is happening now, including changing consumer tastes, very high rents and increased online competition.
New Byron Bay Chamber of Commerce president Todd Sotheren told Echonetdaily that rental affordability was high on the list of his constituents.
‘There is no doubt that the commercial rental market is being affected by the corresponding residential rental and real estate market, locally,’ he said.
‘With affordable-housing such a hot topic right now, perhaps we need to have more of an eye on a corresponding affordable-retail issue,’ he added.
Changing retail trends are another issue that he cites.
‘With the type of visitor to our region changing over time, are storefronts standing back periodically to take a bigger picture view of where they sit in the current marketplace?’ he asks.
‘With so much change over the last few years in our region, should a particular business be servicing the new “hipster yuppies”, aspirational couples or our own local community members?’
He also believes that US-style phenomenon of big retail is having an impact.
‘For example, I know for a fact that some of the homewares stores are struggling against copy-cat designer homewares by K-Mart and Target, in a similar way to the phenomenon of “fast fashion” by the likes of H&M competing against true designer boutiques.’
Bangalow Rug Shop owner and long-time local retailer Milton Cater agrees that cut-price fashion is making inroads into that town’s boutique business.
‘A number of us have been against the A&I Hall being rented out for discount clothing sales and so on.’
‘You can hire the hall and just have a sale of cheap rugs – why not?’
‘But that’s not helping the mainstay businesses of the town – in fact it’s detracting from them.’
The cars that ate Bangalow
Mr Cater says ‘carloads of teenagers are coming in search of a bargain, and that’s not translating into business for Bangalow shops like ours that have built a reputation on quality, not price.’
But it is the ever-increasing traffic, Mr Cater says, that is impacting on the ambience of the town and its attraction to the well-heeled shoppers that traditionally visited it.
‘In some ways we’re victims of our own success,’ he said.
‘Since the new highway opened we’ve had more and more traffic through the town, and ostensibly more and more people.
‘But more are more people are just wanting a quick something or other on their way through.
‘We really need to stop the traffic.
‘On market days when the cars are all idling away, we have to close the doors of the shop just to keep from choking on the fumes.
‘I get calls from people who want to know the “best time to visit” because there’s so much traffic in the town,’ he said.
Mr Southeren believes what he calls ‘the Network Effect’ is impacting Bangalow in particular.
‘If not all businesses are open all weekend, it detracts from the collective appeal for visitors of the stores that do open,’ he said.
‘Perhaps the main street needs to be viewed more holistically, as a single destination.’
Some doing well
But it’s not all doom and gloom, with Mr Southeren saying that some retailers are bucking the trend.
‘Immediately examples like Emma of Mez Club and Ms Margaritas come to mind – she is very deft at creating an experience for the visitor and reading what it is that the market wants,’ he said.