Mainstreet Australia is a membership-based not-for-profit organisation representing Australia’s traditional Main Streets, High Streets, Town Centres and City Centres. These centres provide the opportunity for people and their communities to work locally, shop locally, be entertained, and access health and community services, among other opportunities. Importantly, these centres also enable businesses to establish locally and to operate, invest and provide jobs.
Mainstreet Australia undertook a survey of members in July 2022 (see full survey report here) in order to gain an up-to-date appreciation of the issues, challenges and opportunities that face members in their day-to-day, ongoing involvement in local centres. The main findings are summarised as follows:
Impacts of COVID-19 on Local Businesses and Main Streets
The impacts of the pandemic on local businesses in Main Streets and other local centres were typically severe, especially with a loss of on-street customers and a loss of staff due to mandated lockdowns. The increase in vacant premises, the shortage of staff, and the difficulties in paying rents were also noted.
However, many benefits for Main Streets are also evident as a result of the pandemic, including a strengthening of the Main Street neighbourhood shopping experience (as many in the labour force worked from home) and a greater appreciation by businesses of the importance of having an online presence. Many other small businesses found they were “savvy enough to survive” the pandemic.
How Main Streets are Recovering Since Lifting of COVID-19 Lockdowns
The most successful campaigns are those that reinforced the value of shopping locally, reminding the community of the importance of having access to good local services and why these local services need to be supported into the future. In suburban centres in particular, the introduction of parklets (on-street car parking spaces adapted for outdoor dining) have also contributed to improved operating conditions for cafes and restaurants. Placemaking projects also assisted in expanding local sales in retailing, while an increase in local activities – such as festivals, local tours and activations – have assisted in getting shoppers and others back into local centres.
Overall, the view of Main Street business respondents is that these local centres are responding in a positive manner since the lifting of lockdowns, especially as traders and other businesses focus on attracting residents to “shop local”.
Ongoing Issues for Main Streets Following COVID-19 Lockdowns
Many issues for Main Street trader groups involve supply issues, delivery, lack of staff, and burnout associated with workload and stress. Shortage of labour remains as a short- to medium-term issue for many businesses and it is difficult to see this changing in view of current circumstances.
An ongoing issue is the increasing competition from online shopping, although this is a continuing technological and retail-related issue, not just associated with the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Some Main Streets continue to have an issue with a lack of long-term vibrancy in attracting and retaining customers. This is also an ongoing issue in terms of the need to continually look at different ways to promote the local centre so that it stands out from competitors. Re-engaging with consumers is an issue for many centres, with anxieties in the community around returning to a pre-COVID social and spending environment.
Respondents also identify positive outcomes for local centres, including recognition that adverse outcomes associated with the pandemic are slowly retracting as people “slip into a new normal” in terms of day-to-day activities, including regular visits to their local Main Streets. This is reflected in local centres where business vacancies are now declining.
Sources of Information to Support Main Street Businesses
The primary source of information – about issues, challenges and underlying trends associated with Main Streets – involve discussions with local people involved in local businesses, and contact with Mainstreet Australia through their local associations’ membership. These discussions assist Main Street businesses in understanding what’s important to their local centres, business owners, local workforce, and the public who support these local centres. Another source of local information in addressing issues and challenges is to understand how other Main Streets are dealing with these matters, through examples of particular projects and other initiatives.
Key Actions for Local Councils and State Governments in Supporting Main Streets
- Encourage Councils to provide holistic support for centres, rather than individual support from a variety of Council departments. Attract State government funds for Main Street marketing programs, recognising the economic and community benefits that Main Streets generate. Provide financial support directly to associations to use in the most effective way that is appropriate for a centre, and support community engagement activities and local trader workshops.
- Fund and oversee appropriate localised place-making to create exciting places with ambience. Encourage beautification of shopping strips by removing the layers and layers of red tape to get anything done. Encourage the beautification of the street, with plants and other greenery, fix footpaths and provide other local amenities. Provide decorations in the street, both general and at festive times, to enhance the visitor experience.
- Develop, promote and deliver training programs for small business, including development of digital capabilities and online shopping for ‘bricks-and-mortar’ businesses.
- Support Main Street management and marketing. Collect and assess data on shopper movement patterns and shopping regularity as input to infrastructure requirements and street beautification plans.
- Encourage property owners to provide incentives that assist the operation and financial security of their tenants.
How Mainstreet Australia can Provide or Improve Assistance to Members
Respondents were asked to identify the three main areas where Mainstreet Australia can provide or improve its assistance to members. These top areas for assistance to members include: advocacy on high rents and other landlord issues; how to better co-ordinate Main Street businesses to meet challenges and opportunities; and advocacy on cost-of-living impact on consumer spend and small businesses.
Respondents also provided numerous comments regarding the importance for Mainstreet Australia to continue to meet, collaborate and network among members. Other suggestions are to: advocate to State Governments for funding opportunities to initiate projects in business-building, education and training, digital marketing, shopfront improvements; consider formal training for centre managers regarding Main Street issues/opportunities, including advocacy role; liaise with businesses regarding staff training in management skills; assist in marketing of Main Streets, business mix, rent issues, government support; indicate how local Councils can use macroeconomic and strategic planning projects and programs to create a regulatory, physical and community environment where business thrives; undertake case studies and other research in regard to the operation and outlook for Main Streets; and encourage and support festivals and promotions.
In the words of one respondent, “It’s going to be a long, steady revival emerging from COVID; don’t expect miracles in the first year or two”.