Shopping centres forced to adapt as coronavirus leaves Australian retailers facing their worst year

The clothing shop 'Witchery' sits empty
Our shopping centres and retailers within have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.(ABC Central Coast: Jake Lapham)

Shopping centres have long been a part of Australia’s urban culture but the threat of online sales, plus a pandemic-driven dent in consumer sentiment, means many are now in a fight for their lives.

The decline of bricks and mortar retail has been accelerated by coronavirus which, for a period, saw buzzing hives of activity become eerily empty.

While the coronavirus situation is continuing to evolve in Australia, experts say a picture is emerging of a very different shopping landscape into the future, one that has the potential to reshape our neighbourhoods.

According to Deloitte Access Economics, Australian retail is facing its worst year on record.

While swings in consumer confidence over recent months make it difficult to predict just how bad things could get, the group has forecast a 1.4 per cent fall in turnover growth for 2020.

A graph showing a spike in retail growth up until March, then a large slump, before a rebound in May.
Deloitte Access Economics predicts a 1.4 per cent slump in turnover growth.(Supplied: Deloitte Access Economics)

Shoppers adapt to changing environment

The coronavirus pandemic prompted a sharp spike in online shopping, exposing vulnerabilities in some retailers’ web platforms.

At the peak of demand, supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths were both forced to temporarily suspend their online service.

Curtin University researcher Billy Sung has been studying consumer behaviour during the pandemic.

Consumer behaviour changed rapidly during the pandemic as restrictions were introduced.(ABC News: Christopher Gillette)

He said shoppers had proven they could adapt to a changing environment very quickly and shopping centres needed to respond fast if they wanted to retain their customers.

“COVID-19 has changed consumer behaviour dramatically,” he said.

“Now that consumers are more digital-natured, these shopping centres should be investing a lot more in technology and digital platforms and [looking at] how they can provide an ecosystem of experience, whereby the offline and the online is integrated into a seamless brand experience.

“They need to provide a reason or incentive for consumers to visit.”