CBD looks to the suburbs for notes on the future (and past) of retail

CBD looks to the suburbs for notes on the future (and past) of retail

“It’s too early to predict whether that trend will significantly change but, regardless, the city is focused on supporting local businesses through efforts to attract people back to the city centre,” she said.

Committee for Sydney chief executive Gabriel Metcalf said the signing of new leases showed businesses were betting on a high number of people spending time and shopping in the CBD.

“Part of the magic of CBDs is that they have room for almost everything inside them,” he said. “Lots of different stores, lots of different restaurants, lots of different jobs.”

Mr Ginnane said Big W was following an overseas trend of budget retailers moving into city centres, with Ikea planning to open on London’s prestigious shopping strip Oxford Street in 2023. Target has opened stores in Manhattan in the past few years “to cater for the quick shopping centre experience within 10 minutes of your workspace”.

In the past, Mr Ginnane said the retail offering in CBDs included hardware, furniture, electric goods and budget department stores.

“What you are seeing is a 2022 version of what CBDs were like in the mid-1960s,” he said. “Today’s consumers are basically lazy in many mays and expect everything to be nearby and accessible, click and collectable 24 hours per day, 365 days of the year.”

Traffic during peak hour on Pitt Street, September 1954. Credit:Arthur Leyden

Business Sydney executive director Paul Nicolaou said he did not believe the discount department store will “lower the tone” of the CBD, but instead expand shopping options for commuters, residents and travellers.

“There are also now a lot of families living in the city in apartments and Big W is targeting them by providing homewares, appliances, toys, kids clothing, toys and accessories,” he said.

Data from SQM research shows the Sydney CBD residential vacancy rate in January was 4.5 per cent, down from a peak of more than 16 per cent in May 2020.

But data from the Property Council of Australia shows only 18 per cent of workers returned to Sydney CBD workplaces in February – compared to 7 per cent in January and 68 per cent in May 2021.

Jana Bowden, a professor of marketing at Macquarie Business School, said the change in work patterns had created a place for a “discounter touting a broad range of products”.


Data from NielsenIQ’s consumer outlook survey shows significantly more shoppers looking for affordable, lower prices in 2022, Professor Bowden said. “Putting both Woolworths and Big W in the one location makes it convenient for the CBD on-the-go shopper looking to grab essential groceries and lifestyle items.”

But she said it was yet to be seen whether adding a discount retailer into the CBD “brings enough pull power” to attract workers, visitors and general shoppers.

Professor Bowden said CBD retailers will continue to face headwinds with hybrid working leading to a decline in the number of commuters travelling to the city and “leaving Friday dead for businesses trying to cash in on foot traffic”.

How Sydney used to shop

Decades before city workers dashed into Woolies at Town Hall for a snack on their way to work, shoppers in 1960s Sydney were promised service that “leaves a feeling of happiness”.

Customers were also offered “service as sure as the Rise of the Sun” as they browsed the homewares and furniture inside Bebarfalds’ landmark location opposite Sydney Town Hall, according to catalogues held by the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection at Sydney Living Museums.

Bebarfalds was one of many department stores that attracted shoppers to the Sydney CBD throughout the 1950s and 1960s, along with other now-forgotten household names such as Mark Foy’s, Marcus Clark & Co and Anthony Hordern & Sons.

Like the elegantly coiffed customers in the 2018 movie Ladies in Black, set in a prestigious Sydney department store, shoppers at Bebarfalds often dressed in their Sunday best.


But Michael Lech, a curator at Sydney Living Museums, said the 1960s was the end of an era for Sydney’s grand department stores as the city’s growing population and rising rates of car ownership meant more people lived farther from the city.

“What it meant was there was a greater demand for shops and stores closer to where people were living than in the past,” he said.

Mr Lech said there was also a strong push by governments from the 1950s to decentralise jobs and business towards the suburbs to “stop the city being so choked”.

“A lot of retailers saw the future was in the suburbs,” he said.


Sydney’s first major open-air shopping centre was built at Top Ryde in 1957, while Roselands was the biggest shopping centre in the Southern Hemisphere when it was opened by NSW Premier Robert Askin in 1965.

Meanwhile, Sydney CBD was beginning to look shabby and shopping had contracted to the area around the Pitt Street Mall and George Street, Mr Lech said. “Around World Square, what used to be a thriving group of department stores all fell in a heap.”

Shoppers still ventured into the Sydney CBD to shop at David Jones, but Mr Lech said it was a far cry from pre-war days when “everyone came to the city to do their shopping”.

Woolworths opened its first store in the Imperial Arcade in the city in 1924.


“It was not a supermarket but rather a chain store’, which later became known as Woolworths Variety Stores,” Mr Lech said. “It was a kind of discount department store with limited lines and low prices.”

Mr Lech said Woolworths and Coles both opened a number of these stores in the city and suburbs within a short time.

“This was a challenge to prestigious department stores that until the 1950s usually only had one large CBD store,” he said.

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