By Elizabeth Barry
Retailers on Oxford Street are struggling. Once a thriving collection of boutiques and cafes, the strip is now better known for the ‘For Lease’ signs festooning the windows of empty shops. Stores that continue to cling to the strip’s former glory are battling low sales and indifferent shoppers.
With other shopping strips such as King Street and Glebe Point Road laying claim to eclectic boutiques and interesting cafes and restaurants now reporting increased sales, why is Oxford Street in decline?
With occasional glances outside to see the odd customer walk past, Paddington retailer Peter says nothing is worse than the empty shops.
“The ‘For Lease’ signs don’t help, and its worse up here than down the Darlinghurst end,” Peter says.
Oxford Street is split between two postcodes, two council areas, and two distinct identities. The Darlinghurst end has a lively nightlife and many quirky art studios and exhibition spaces while the Paddington end has lost much of its exclusivity with the closure of designer stores like Hugo Boss and specialist antique shops.
In response to the changing nature of shopping on the strip, Lord Mayor Clover Moore has introduced new initiatives in an attempt to revitalise the area. One such initiative, ‘Creative Spaces’, saw the City of Sydney offering start-up businesses discounted rent for short-term leases in shops and offices on the city end of Oxford Street.
The main aim of the program was to foster and develop Oxford Street as a creative and cultural hub by making use of vacant premises. The response has been positive with 19 new tenants since the start of the program in February 2012.
Woollahra Council has asked real estate agents to remove excessive ‘For Lease’ signs on 13 Oxford Street properties. Despite both Woollahra Council and the City of Sydney Council recognising the need to develop a unified approach to the strip, Woollahra Council is focusing on planning controls to assist and promote the area, rather than creative initiatives.
Woollahra Mayor Cr Andrew Petrie says the Council “has already made changes in terms of zoning that have supported an increase in cafe and restaurants. We are also looking at more opportunities for footway chairs and tables to support alfresco dining and assisting with the amount of interest from ‘pop-up’ restaurants. All of these planning controls make a difference to the revitalisation in the Oxford Street area.”
A local resident, property owner and real estate agent, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he doesn’t believe Oxford Street has suffered because it is situated between Westfield Bondi Junction and Westfield Pitt Street but rather the problem lies in the strip losing its distinctive style.
“Oxford Street started to look too much like Westfield, it lost its unique boutiques, cafes and sense of style. The street started to die. Now Surry Hills is exciting because it’s still got shops that are unique.”
Local retailer Jade, wholesale manager of Pizzuto, says if stores are struggling the blame falls on them.
“They don’t know what customers want. Oxford Street is a shopping destination, people come here for an experience. If you understand your customers they’ll come to your shop no matter how many empty stores are on the rest of the street.”
The situation on Oxford Street has seen community groups develop online, with retailers and locals banding together for support. Two notable community groups are Love 2010 and the Paddington Business Partnership, each having a focus on their end of the strip.
Love 2010, which is made up of local retailers and residents, says on its website that it wants to “re-discover and celebrate Australian businesses that are situated in the 2010 postcode in Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Lower Oxford Street, East Sydney and Stanley Street”.
The Paddington Business Partnership says it “is committed to fighting back” by re-establishing the unique identity of the precinct against the “dull backdrop of cookie-cutter shopping malls and couch potato online shopping”.
It continues to sponsor initiatives like Paddington Alive, a festival established in 2009 to celebrate the fashion, arts and experience of the area, and last year added diverse events and promotions such as the Five Ways Winter Festival, the William St Laneway Festival and the Paddo Food and Wine festival.