Shoppers were increasingly turning their backs on large shopping centres in favour of online retail therapy long before COVID-19; yet changing markets and conditions mean many are re-thinking the value and role of the local shops as critical centres for connection within our communities.

There had been growing concern in the retail sector that the shift to online shopping would see the demise of local shopping centres, yet there now exists an opportunity and momentum for the exact opposite to happen.

The responsibility to make it happen rests with shopping centre management and their tenants, government and stakeholders, who need to shift their thinking around what communities want and need – smaller and more social and local retail precincts; corner shops re-considered, if you will.

Shifting needs of the community

An increase in remote working for many Australians – a growing trend before COVID-19 – is seeing many workers spend less time in city centres and more time in their own residential areas for both work and play.

The need for social contact is an innate one for most people and with many of them spending more time in their suburb, they will increasingly rely on local retailers and facilities to meet these needs.

The push to support local, sustainable and eco-friendly businesses – to the point where we want to know where ingredients for products we are buying have been procured – has gone a long way to helping consumers reconsider the role of the local shops and producers in their lives.

In short, the need for social contact, a desire to stay within our suburbs and awareness of the benefits of having a local butcher, baker and hairdresser, is changing our relationships with our shopping centres back to an updated version of “corner shops”.

The move to online shopping

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows consumers have consistently moved away from in-store shopping in favour of online purchasing over the past five years.

In May 2016, total online retail trade in Australia was worth $800.4 million. The following year it increased 22.8% year-on-year (y-o-y) to $983 million, then jumped 49% y-o-y  to $1465 million ($1.47 billion) in 2018, before recording an 11.6% increase in 2019 ($1.64 billion) followed by a staggering 74% jump in May 2020 to $2.86 billion.

While a portion of the popularity can obviously be attributed to lockdowns, it is also clear that the trend towards online shopping was gaining momentum long before COVID-19 and there is no reason to expect this trend will slow down any time soon.

Yet, not all needs can be met with online shopping.

Over the past 10 years I have been working in design for the retail sector, I have watched trends come and go, including working on more than a dozen large retail precincts and multiple retail proposals.

What we have seen is that shopping precincts which can respond quickly to changing market trends and are focused on the local community are the most likely to succeed in a changing market.

An example

There are plenty of examples of well done, newly-redeveloped social precincts across Brisbane which are designed to entice locals back to their neighbourhood shopping centre.

In 2019, one such revitalisation project included local consultation with shopkeepers and the community to understand what they needed, wanted and would utilise. While some commercial tenants in the area have publicly said there could have been more scope for better consultation, the final project expanded on the existing retail tenants and added in a dining laneway which is expected to become a prominent and well-patronised precinct for Brisbane foodies and locals. Future planning also allows for a more social precinct.

By creating these spaces, a dedicated dining laneway, future social interactions, the centre will start the process of redefining itself from being a place to go to shopping in retail stores only to offering a more social experiences as well.

While the project goes a long way towards achieving this, like many other precincts around Brisbane, there is still scope to better fold in new experiences for patrons, linking the centre with the community it is in, in integral and immersive ways.

Future design will see a focus on building centres which offer something for everyone in a diverse population – and potentially engage them for a whole day at a time – from including active zones such as fitness centres to workspaces, retail and entertainment to food and beverage. There is even the possibility of linking in new types of residential.

This leaves an enormous scope to re-imagine the use of retail and public spaces to meet demand with community at its centre.

Boutique, local and personalised is in favour with consumers rather than big and global

This can also be seen in the clubs’ sector. Take for example a community club which makes most of its money in the last couple of months of the year with swelling patronage because of Christmas and holiday functions and events. For the remainder of the year, it serves a small but dedicated membership base.

Imagine that club capitalises on its physical space to provide different opportunities for local residents, from perhaps shared office space rented to those who don’t want to work from their dining room at home to weekend markets showcasing local produce. This would allow for the development of a new community-based precinct supported by locals and which revitalises an existing space.

Looking ahead, there is no doubt online shopping will continue to grow but it won’t be done at the expense of local shopping precincts, if those precincts are designed to capture the attention and needs of the community it serves.

Campaigns to shop locally, buy local produce and support local providers and shopkeepers will also continue to grow and this is helping to lead a resurgence in local shopping centres.

It is also leading to a reinvention of community spaces to become places where business is conducted, small business is consciously supported and the community is afforded new places of connection.

Luke Chalmers is director at Chalmers Partners Architects