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October 3, 2022

Retail downturn hits Byron Bay, Bangalow

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For years upmarket Bangalow seemed to buck the trend of declining retail. Has the tied turned? Photo Chris Dobney
For years upmarket Bangalow seemed to buck the trend of declining retail. Has the tide turned? Photo Chris Dobney

Chris Dobney

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.

Rental affordability

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 trends

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?’

Cut-price competition

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.

Network effect

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.

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  1. Any idea of what is happening in Mullum? I reckon people are shopping there – some great little specialty shops, free parking, great vibe, cheaper rent maybe? (therefore not such an ongoing struggle for the retailer.) Shop local people. Imagine Byron if there was only a pile of restaurants and chain stores?

    • Mullum does have a great vibe, Jos. Chain stores add nothing to the unique character of a town except convenience and a product / experience you can get anywhere. It’s a pity there are so many in Byron. They often have the financial clout to withstand downturns while their discounting sends local businesses to the wall, a point made by Maria Malta of Life of Byron to The Echo in Nov 2016 when she closed her eclectic fashion and homewares store. We should value and support local suppliers and businesses who have something unique and interesting to offer the locals (and visitors) to this area.

  2. Ive been traveling around the country people always ask where are you from? I say Byron.. most often the reply is oh its lovely there.. to which i reply its so hectic.. they reply yes it is we wanted to stay but we didn’t its too busy and too much traffic.. this is from many, many folks 50yrs-70s.. the party booze town vibe is killing any shred of good vibes Byron ever had. . Its not laid back, its bloody hectic.. as a local i go to Mullum to shop & i live in Suffolk Park..

  3. Yes, we live in Byron but shop in Lismore, Ballina and Mullum…..Byron rents are way too high which puts pressure on the funky retailer……there’s still a few but the town is losing its funky fun ways…..I don’t think there’s much that can be done…

  4. The exhorbitant parking fees in Byron Bay drive visitors and locals to look around at shops or have a simple cuppa somewhere else where parking is free. Money hungry businesses are charging top city prices in a low income area.

    • I bet your also the person to complain about the potholes and road conditions. If your a local you can get a parking permit for $55 per year (just over $1) per week, Id hardly say thats exhorbitant.
      These ‘money hungry businesses’ set their prices based around supply and demand and the cost of their overheads (they dont choose the rent prices, nor can they opt out of penalty rate payments for employees)

      • Too many chain stores means the Byron retail is boring. Although now I can get a park, which means I do go into the town for cafes and the last few independently/locally owned shops. Paid parking is fantastic – at least now the council has money to pay for the basics.

  5. I’m in Skenners Head, stopped going to the Pighouse Flicks, the area is too dark with too too many potholes, feel like I need a wheel alignment after I leave.

    A Portmans, Sports girl, Just Jeans…..not the Byron I used to know.

  6. Byron Bay does not offer value for money, in its retail or in its sevicw indusries either for that matter. Those are fundamental problems. They result from the fact that there is an inbalance in supply of both commercial and residential premises and the fact that there WAS HIGH DEMAND from people all over to come visit.
    This situation is changing. Byron Bay has well and truly gone off the boil with international travellers. It is not considered to be the hip cool place to visit anymore, because it isnt that way anymore. It no longer has that edge. Instead it is now the destination holiday for the boring corporate types. The retail has also become boring and corporate, and is justifiably suffering. There is very little in the way of a point of difference anywhere, and prices are rediculous by comparison with other Aust. cities and much much worse when compared internationally.The retail will take an even bigger hit when the Woolies Plaza is finished, because it will alter trafic parking and flow patterns and generally disrupt an already stressed marketplace. Add to this the fact that Sustralia is on the edge of a massive recession and property and stock market crash and it does not look good at all. Retailers are going to have to be very cutting edge, selling stuff people need , not just want, low on debt and lean to survive let alone to thrive in the next 5-10 years, which is likely how long this next recession will last.

  7. Some Google trip reviewers write that they used to drop in on Byron for lunch and go shopping but once bitten by parking fees they vow not to return. It’s taken a while but the town has lost many such return visitors and local day trippers. In short, paid parking has made passing Australian tourists feel ripped off and local day trippers unwelcome.

    The town has also lost its cultural diversity by turning away local day trippers. Unsurprisingly, parking fees, drunk backpackers and retired public servants promenading in their budgie smugglers or yoga pants aren’t big tourist draw cards. It’s hard to believe the retail downturn could surprise anyone.

    • I am not sure how you can tell a drunk in budgie smugglers was once a public servant – do they mutter a lot about the “the Act” or wander round using expressions like “she was a five in socials…” or still carry a buff folder of papers under their arm so people think they are working? Anyway I thought they all retired to Ballina Heights – little Canberra with ocean views – I know I did.

  8. Why shop at chain stores in Byron where you have to pay for parking, when you can shop at the same in Ballina for free? But then, why shop at chain stores at all? Crap quality polluting our environment!

    The only ‘unique’ shops in Byron or Bangalow, and even Mullum and Burns these days to some degree, are overpriced and bland – no local ‘colour’ any more. But I’d still prefer to shop personally than online. These towns have lost their unique characters – I used to tell everyone each village had its own personality but now they’ve become one homogenous boring lump.

    Don’t get me started on coffee! Paid $8.80 recently in Mullum for 2 small coffees!! I paid $3.50 each for 2 large ones in Circular Quay, Sydney, in July this year. Reality check!

    Ah, the change that is inevitable. Feel sorry for the shopkeepers paying greedy landlords, and thus having to charge ridiculous prices.

  9. Ah yes, who killed the Goose that laid the Golden Egg ? Key money extortion ? Bending over for the franchise traders ? Greedy council with a lack of vision ? The Byron Liquor Accord ??
    After 43 years in the Byron Shire I pulled stumps – the old Brown cow aint what she used to be.
    Live in Queensland now. Rent a 2 storey absolute waterfront beautiful house for $300 pw,
    NO potholes, shining public bbq’s scrubbed clean every morning. Boat ramps, public toilets, road verges maintained like they should be, cheaper rates (bought land here for a realistic price).
    Wont be back.

    But I miss the Dolphins.

  10. Real Estate Agents are pushing up the rents (commercial & private) to stay cosy with crafty investors who would look elsewhere if there was another buck in it. The agents are rarely talked about as being part of the problem – they have so much power over determining rentals/house prices. They get their commissions remember. Couldn’t they all get together and say ENOUGH – down with rents, who’s in?

  11. I’d rather pay for yearly parking fees & get the potholes fixed than a new front end for my car or bent wheel hubs.. its a lot cheaper & less traumatic.. Locals are deserting Byron just like the locals in Kuranda nth qld leaving it to the tourists who just want to consume mainstream junk.. I’ve seen this happen to one funky town after another tha alternates make it different & interesting, big money & hoards of tourists flock in like seagulls n chips & destroy the vibe that attracted interest initially. It used to be a friendly town, not anymore..

  12. Lack of planning & vision by local council. Ill equipped to deal with it all. No one can stop the growth in popularity but that the strategic planning required is severely lacking. Best practice town & community planning required.

  13. Commercial land lords pay too much to purchase, and then have to charge too much for rents. There is way too much commercial in Byron for it to sustain itself. Relying on holiday consumers to catch up is now unviable. Byron won’t improve for a number of years, until the council realises the demographic and adjusts. I think it’s inevitable that Byron will be ‘cosmopolitan’, but it needs an honest approach and influence to balance the left and the right.


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