Locals back Olga’s Puckle St store but other shopping strips slow to bounce back

In her 40 years of selling children’s wear in Moonee Ponds’ bustling Puckle Street, Olga Kenny has seen her fair share of economic turmoil, but none quite as arduous as the last three years.

“It’s been a difficult time for everyone,” said Kenny, whose mother first opened the shop about 65 years ago.

Olga Kenny in her children’s wear shop in Puckle Street.Credit:Penny Stephens

“Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of support from regular customers. A lot of people are shopping locally to support small businesses,” she said.

Because of that loyalty, Puckle Street has far fewer windows sporting ‘for lease’ signs than other popular Melbourne shopping streets.

Vacancy on the strip, at 7 per cent, is nearly double its historical average (around 4 per cent), but still far lower than long-suffering Bridge Road, across the other side of town in Richmond, where the number of empty shops peaked at 26 per cent during the height of the pandemic in February last year.

Bridge Road’s woes, however, aren’t all pandemic related.

Fortunately we’ve had a lot of support from regular customers. A lot of people are shopping locally to support small businesses.

Retail real estate in the street was struggling to attract tenants before COVID arrived when one fifth of available space was empty, and at last count, a quarter of its shops were still closed.

The hollowed-out stores in the city’s suburban streets, a hallmark of the pandemic’s long lockdowns, are slowly reviving, said consultant Richard Jenkins, whose firm Plan 1 Project Management & Consultancy tracks vacant space on 11 of the city’s larger suburban strips.

“We have all been hearing horror stories from retailers, but vacancy numbers appear to have peaked. While there are some high numbers in some of the strips still, overall, that’s starting to come down,” Jenkins said.

Retailers are being helped by the work-from-home trend.

“Even if it’s only one day at home, that’s one more than previously and that will benefit suburban businesses,” he said.

The mix of new tenants occupying empty stores is also changing. More service-based firms like health practitioners are opening as traditional retailers like fashion fall away.

Some streets may take up to five years to fully recover, Jenkins thinks.

Glenferrie Road, which runs through the city’s leafy streets of Hawthorn and Malvern, has two stretches of usually thriving shopping zones.

At the Malvern end, the number of empty stores doubled during the pandemic, while at the other, in Hawthorn, vacancy peaked at 12.8 per cent before falling. One in 10 shops still remain empty at the Hawthorn end.

Another suburban strip frequented by international tourists, beachgoers and cake lovers was probably hardest-hit by the pandemic.

Vacancy in Acland Street, St Kilda shot up from 9 per cent before the pandemic, to 22.5 per cent at last count, an all-time high.

Known for its cake shops, Readings bookstore, cafes and proximity to palm-lined St Kilda beach, the strip is groaning under the challenge of COVID, tough retailing conditions and high rents.

“The rents did get significantly high for a period of time,” however, most landlords were now more open-minded, said Aston Commercial agent Josh Burne.

“They want to hear from good tenants,” he said.

Vacancy in the street is more obvious because it’s condensed in a smaller area.

Clothing retailer Cotton On, that some worried would close, is instead moving to a bigger and better shop at 161-163 Acland.

“That will help. Acland Street relies quite heavily on tourism. Over summer people weren’t coming. There has been three summers where international tourists haven’t visited Acland Street and St Kilda beach,” Burne said.

Back in Moonee Ponds, Kenny is not put off. “I’m going to stick with it for a while.

“It’s always been a very vibrant street. We’ve got some very good traders,” she said.

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