Retailers are witnessing a resurgence in popularity as customers turn to West End’s high street and South Brisbane’s cultural precinct for their shopping experiences.

Quirky affordable items, old-fashioned personalised customer service and an opportunity for social interaction are attracting shoppers to the 4101 postcode. As department stores continue to struggle, small retailers in West End and South Bank are proving adept at luring a loyal customer base.

Mounted felt deer heads created by a 12-year old, gold leather ankle boots fashioned by a Mexican man and handknitted cacti made by two local ladies, are just some of the unusual products that Leah Musch has on display at the Happy Cabin on Vulture Street, West End. “People are definitely looking for a shopping experience,” she says. “They come in here because it is personal. Maybe it’s for a chat about their day or to hear about the stories about the latest products I have in store. It can be quite overwhelming in the city; greetings are scripted and people can see through that.” Leah, who opened in June this year, recognised that customers are looking for more in their shopping experience and she recently set up a coffee shop alongside her store. “People want to get lunch, a coffee, go to the book store and shop for vintage. They can do all of that here,” agrees Melissa Martin of La Brocante Rag and Bone in West End. After being in Brick Lane in London, Melissa was excited to find that a similar experience could be found in the 4101 when she opened her vintage boutique in Vulture Street in May this year.

Peter Marinelli, President of the West End Traders Association, admits that business has been tough but many local small businesses are finding innovative ways to survive in the changing retail environment. “It is all about moving with the times and being smarter in business. If something doesn’t work, you have to try something else,” he says. The West End Traders Association has been representing businesses in the area for more than 30 years and currently has more than 100 members across a mix of business types. Retail trade figures, released by Queensland Treasury and Trade, show that retail turnover in the state in August was up by five per cent in the previous 12 months. The increase reflected higher spending in food and household goods, which was offset by lower spending in department stores, clothing, footwear and accessory items.

“Some people are doing better than others: it is the way times are. Retail is not going down the drain like they say but it has gotten tougher with increasing overheads and decreasing margins,” Peter says. After 25 years in business in West End as owner of the Swiss Gourmet Delicatessen, Peter is philosophical about the new retail environment. “It is just how it is,” he says. “I have been through good times, tough times and then fabulous times again. The thing is to focus on what steps to take in the next 12 months of business.”

Peter says that customer loyalty is also important to survival. Wayne Shay, third generation owner of Shays Shoes in Boundary Street, which has been around for 112 years, agrees. “You need to offer things to keep people loyal — they are not going to stay loyal if you are a nice guy or girl. We build our customer loyalty through our one-on-one personalised service,” he says. “People go out for a good shopping experience, where they can enjoy the interaction, see the product, feel the product, get some advice and try it on. The big guys find it hard to compete with small business in this way.” And even though Wayne has invested in an online retail presence, which has opened up new markets in regional Queensland, he says customers still want the tactile aspect of shopping. “These days an online presence is important. Customers are extremely knowledgeable about the products, most doing their homework and research online. We find that people are using the internet to find out where you are and what products you have but they still like to come in and buy the product.”

Chief Executive of the Business South Bank Janine Watson says the “precinct feel” of South Bank, with its multi-faceted cultural and social experiences, is attracting retailers and customers to the area. “If people are making the effort to come in their cars or on public transport to South Bank, it is because they want an ‘experience’. Although this is not a new trend, the grouping of like products makes it easier for the consumer, such as the multiple choices of restaurants at South Bank. Janine says that the grouping of restaurants, cafes and cultural experiences is always certain to attract people and other retailers also benefit. “The adage ‘success breeds success’ is true in South Bank’s case.”

Izabella Chabrowska, manager of the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art Store, says many visitors of the gallery combine a cultural visit with a shopping opportunity, particularly in the lead up to Christmas. “Being able to shop for beautiful products after being inspired by a visit to the gallery rounds out their overall experience, and makes it the complete day out,” she says. “We have also planned a great range of Asian-themed products to coincide with our next exhibition: The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art.”

Trevor Evans, executive director of the National Retailer Association, who is based in East Brisbane, says that there is anecdotal evidence that conditions for retailers are improving, particularly in high street retailing environments. Evans says even though national statistics show that department stores are under pressure, sectors such as food and leisure items are reporting sales growth.

Robson Bond, owner of Active Stride, reports strong online sales and says exercise events such as triathlons and free Saturday South Bank parkruns give people additional reasons to visit the South Bank store. “They like it when we let them have a test run outside,” he says.

Words by Maria Ceresa  |  Images by Gillian van Niekerk, Darlia Argyris and supplied by Michael Innis