Let’s talk about empty shops – why there are so many and what can be done about them

Talk to any small business retailer and they will have stories about empty shops in their area that are having a negative impact on their business.

In shopping centres, suburban high streets and country town main roads, there are plenty of empty shops.

Some have been empty for years.

Empty shops make a shopping centre or area feel unpopular, making the task of attracting shoppers harder for remaining retailers. Retailers nearby who are doing it tough will point to empty shops nearby as a core cause.

Some local councils have been innovative in addressing the vacant retail space challenge by opening them to local makers and artists. This has been terrific to see. In Newcastle in NSW, for example, they did some excellent work in this area years ago. Most councils, however, have not.

Why are there so many empty shops? Talk to retailers and they will blame landlords for rents that are too high. Talk to economists and others expert in retail property space as a ratio of population and they will say that Australia has too much retail space. Talk to the folks in some specific towns and they will blame the main street empty spaces on the new mall that has opened just outside town. Talk to almost anyone and they will blame online. Talk to some landlords and they will say retailers are not innovative enough.

As with any contentious issue that has opposing vested interests, it is hard to get to the truth of the situation.

For what it is worth, my opinion is that the answer to the question lies in a mixture of the reasons offered above.

I do think we have too much retail space in Australia. Rent is among the highest in the world. Retail is not that innovative. People are shopping online for convenience. So, yes, I am hedging my bets.

That said, the why does not matter as much as what to do with them.

Occasionally, you can find a pragmatic landlord who is happy to have a space filled at a lower rent than sit empty for a year or more. We think we need more pragmatic landlords.

Occasionally, we see small business retailers burst out of what has been traditional for their type of business and create something genuinely innovative, which is embraced by local shoppers. We need more of this. However, it is hard work, often capital intensive and high risk.

Occasionally, we see empty shops torn down and the space used for something difference. We need to see much more of this. Less retail space is a good thing for retailers and this is good for local communities.

The challenge for small business retailers today with empty shops nearby is how to deal with the stench of those empty shops.

If your landlord has those shops too and there is one next to you, ask them if you can use the space for display. To us, that would be a win win for you both. The key is to craft the right approach that serves the interests of the landlord as well as your own.

If the shops are not from your landlord, the most obvious response will be to be louder and bigger from your premises. By louder, we mean more events to attract shoppers, give people more reason to come to you.

The best way to deal with online is to be online yourself, with a compelling offer, probably under a brand that is not your shop brand, seeking out shoppers far from your shop location.

The alternative to action is to complain because, yeah, complaining achieves a lot … not.

Empty shops are a problem in Australia. How we deal with that in our own retail businesses comes down to us and the actions we take.

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