News / COVID-19

‘We’ll bounce back’: traders optimistic as COVID lockdown drags on

Despite a 17% vacancy rate, dozens of new businesses provide hope for Sydney Road

The view looking down Sydney Road from near Albion Street.

Mark Phillips
Monday, September 6, 2021

COVID has left its mark on Sydney Road with almost one-in-five shops empty, but the real story is not as bad as the figures suggest, says the traders’ association.

The enforced closures to the public for more than 200 days over the past 18 months have had a toll leading to some businesses shutting their doors permanently, but there have also been dozens of new entrants into the strip since last year.

Prior to the pandemic, shop vacancies in Sydney Road were the lowest they had been for more than a decade, but the worst fears of mass closures have not eventuated.

The Sydney Road Business Association, which represents all traders between Brunswick and Moreland Roads, says there are 114 vacant premises, equating to 16.9% of all premises in the strip.

But only 72 of them, or 10.67%, are actually advertised as for lease.

Eleven of the empty buildings are currently undergoing or awaiting redevelopment, and another 31 are off the market for various reasons.

Although 70 businesses became vacant in 2020, compared to 29 in 2019 and 53 in 2018, the strip has defied expectations with 41 new businesses opening since October.

“Empty shop frontages are not an accurate measure of the health of a shopping strip,” said Claire Perry, the manager of the Sydney Road Business Association.

“It’s not as though Sydney Road is booming, but it’s still a place to come and open a business.”

The association’s president, Mary Gurry, said Sydney Road was “pretty resilient” and she expected the strip would bounce back when shops were eventually allowed to reopen to the public.

“We will be doing a lot of marketing but I think people will be desperate to get back out there, to be honest,” she said.

“I think everybody is so keen to get back out in the world that things will bound along very well for those who have managed to stay the distance and keep things going.”

Ms Perry, who will shortly be leaving her job after 20 years to move to regional Victoria to live, said the diversity of business types in the strip was a strength that had helped it weather the pandemic.

As an example, she said while the formal wedding clothing sector that draws many visitors to the strip has been hit hard, several ethical or vintage clothing businesses have stepped in to replace them.

“I think we’re very lucky that we’ve remained a mixed business strip and not just cafes and restaurants, or not just fashion,” she said. “We’re not one of those shopping strips that has all the usual name brands.

“It’s healthy for a shopping strip to be so mixed.”

Within Sydney Road, there are pockets doing better than others. Ms Perry said the section between Albion and Moreland roads had been dead 10 years ago but was now more popular for new businesses while the section closest to Brunswick Road had a higher number of vacancies, partly because of problems with on-street parking.

But high rents which have not eased despite the pandemic are a dark cloud on the horizon.

Prior to the pandemic, rents had been increasing significantly in Sydney Road and there have been no signs of them falling.

While some landlords provided rent relief or deferrals in 2020, they have been less accommodating in subsequent lockdowns, putting further financial pressure on traders who have gone months without sales income, Ms Perry said.

A woman passes a boarded up shopfront in Sydney Road.

Ms Gurry, who owns a costume hire business near Moreland Road, said most retailers were “burnt out and exhausted” by the regular stop-start lockdowns that have interrupted business over the past 18 months.

She said business owners were desperate for some certainty about the road map ahead, but this could only come with high levels of vaccinations.

“We’ve just got to get on with it and get the jab,” she said.

A victim of the two most recent lockdowns has been the SRBA’s Vintage Ball, that had been planned to be held on July 22 at the Brunswick Ballroom.

The event has been rescheduled to October 7, while a “faces behind the scenes” promotion is expected to go ahead in a few weeks.

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