Managing the Marketplace: Reinventing Shopping Centres in Post-War Australia

managing the marketplace

25 June 2020

On the blog today we have Dr Matthew Bailey (Macquarie University’s Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations) telling us all about his recent book, Managing the Marketplace: Reinventing Shopping Centres in Post-War Australia (Routledge, 2020) He deftly integrates economic, social, gender, geographic and cultural history in a fascinating story of this retail phenomenon.

In the early-1950s, an American commentator declared that the “sudden mushrooming of suburban shopping centres” was one of the most fascinating developments in his country’s post-war building boom. “Where,” J. Ross McKeever asked, “did these come from and why?” Retailers across the globe were equally intrigued, although less about the origins of this radical new retail form, than for the opportunities it might provide in their own countries.

My book, Managing the Marketplace: Reinventing Shopping Centres in Post-War Australia explores the pursuit and consolidation of these opportunities in Australia. It begins in a world where managers had to know how much to feed the store cat to ensure it would not only stay alive but was hungry enough to kill rats, to a landscape visualised and shaped by big data.

Shopping centres changed the form of Australia’s urban geographies and the every-day activities of its population. They evolved into important hubs in the built environment, acting as distribution points for retail firms, social centres for communities and sites of mass, conspicuous consumption. For consumers, shopping centres became places to visit, browse, purchase goods, socialise and congregate. Today they remain among the biggest buildings, most popularly visited sites, largest centres of employment, and most intensive sites of commercial activity in Australian cities, suburbs and regional towns.

Australia also changed the shopping centre. The country’s high level of urbanisation, its class structure and demographic mix, as well as the needs of its big retail firms and the guiding constraints of planning regimes produced a unique shopping centre form. A more comprehensive and effective “one-stop-shop” than its American progenitor the Australian shopping centre incorporated multiple layers of retail and consumer activity and was positioned to a very broad, price-conscious middle market. This highly productive and efficient model was later exported back to America and Europe by Australian firms like Westfield and Lend Lease.

By the mid-1960s, shopping centres were sparsely distributed but firmly established in Australia, although they were more modest in size and contained more open air-sections than contemporary American developments. Over time they grew and became fully enclosed, with the largest promoted as self-contained worlds in their own right. This fundamentally changed the nature of retailing. By privatising and monetising publicly utilised space, shopping centre landlords not only abstracted shopping from other aspects of community life, they also provided a blueprint for the layering of surveillance, control and consumerism that has come to characterise modern urban development.

None-the-less, for many Australians, shopping centres have proved exciting, vibrant places in which to spend time. Teenagers have been particularly enamoured with the social, and even romantic possibilities they facilitate. In one instance, a chance meeting inside Roselands in the late-1960s led to a marriage reception inside the centre a few months later. The bride was one of many young retail workers who found their first job inside the new cities of consumption.

Another, Pauline, began working in the display department of Roseland’s massive Grace Bros department store after graduating from art school. Many of her workmates were older and gay, and had developed their careers in the great urban stores that were now fading. One night, Pauline was asked to sew her boss into a drag outfit covered in hundreds of tiny triangular mirrors. Unable to bend in his new ball gown he had to be transported, flat on his back in a station wagon, over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The look on the toll collector’s face was apparently something quite special.

Pauline’s experiences were probably not what marketers were picturing when they claimed their centres were “bringing the city to the suburbs.”

Managing the Marketplace mixes very subjective experiences like these with broader industry and economic analysis. It uses oral histories conducted with retail property executives, written testimony from shoppers and retail employees, archival sources, ABS and industry data, trade journals, government publications and media reports. It draws on social, cultural, gender, business, urban and economic history approaches, and is a national study.

In the 1970s, Australian retailing underwent another evolution with the introduction of discount department stores. These became a new type of anchor tenant and sparked a second wave of shopping centre development that pushed deep into regional Australia. In the late-1980s, a third wave featured the introduction of multiplex cinemas and take-away food courts. Landlords used these to reposition Australia’s biggest shopping centres as leisure destinations, a move complemented by the de-regulation of trading hours that big retailers pushed for so concertedly.

From the 1980s onwards, the numbers of specialty tenants housed in shopping centres also increased markedly. Many of the independent operators entering the industry, though, clashed with their new landlords, unable to reconcile their entrepreneurial instincts with the strictures, control and cost of doing business inside retail environments that were by now highly sophisticated financial machines. Power differentials between these groups produced intense acrimony and allegations that market power was being abused. One government inquiry in 1997 declared that there was a “war going on” in shopping centres across the country. Retail tenancy legislation enacted across Australia since the mid-1980s has slowed but not stopped complaints, largely because disparities in power are so difficult to address in a retail landscape where shopping centres became so dominant.

Managing the Marketplace explains this dominance by following the paths that led to it. And it is published as the shopping centre form is being challenged in Australia for the first time. E-commerce is accelerating as Covid-19 empties physical shops. Retail spending was already sluggish. An influx of international retailers had upended a long-protected local market. Broader issues of sustainability and economic inequality still pose deep questions for all retailers, while the pandemic has exposed the fragility of supply chains. The history traced in Managing the Marketplace provides context for all of this, articulating the strengths and weaknesses of the shopping centre form in Australia, as well as clues to its possible futures.

Don’t buy it. It’s too expensive. Ask your library to get a copy.


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