Harrolds owner Mary Poulakis is a candidate for Melbourne City Council elections 2020. Here she reveals the challenges of this year and how she plans to restore our iconic fashion capital.
Like many of our industry colleagues in Melbourne, we have found ourselves as unwilling patrons on a slow, horrific roller coaster ride since the beginning of the year.
Generally, before I jump on a roller coaster, I watch on in horror at the screaming patrons. I time the length of the ride and then cautiously jump on, close my eyes, hope for the best and count until it’s over. Up, down, twists and turns. Maybe a sneaky smile.
Up, down, twists, turns and then it’s over.
I’d be pleased with myself and breathe a sigh of relief that I survived. I wouldn’t normally ride the same roller coaster twice, once is ordinarily enough.
But, this year has been an exception and thus far I’ve ridden the roller coaster twice. Up, down, down, sharp turn, down. No sneaky smiles. Grinding halt. Stopped. Still.
Each year, Harrolds heralds the Lunar New Year with stunning window displays, cultural activities and gifting and warmly welcomes international and domestic tourists for the bevy of events and summer activities that Melbourne is renowned for. Lunar New Year generally falls in close proximity to the Australian Open tournament and occasionally Valentine’s Day.
This year, the news of a serious virus outbreak was appearing at a similar time. The following weeks were quite harrowing, footfall fell dramatically, consumer sentiment started to change, local and international news reports became more frequent and more alarming.
2020 was also supposed to be a year of celebrations for Harrolds. It was to see the full realisation of our five-year business plan and the celebration of 35 years of retail in Melbourne’s beautiful CBD.
Plans were well afoot for marking this milestone with extravagant black-tie affairs, instore activations and contemporary collaborations for our clients and many of our longstanding international partners travelling to Melbourne for the occasion.
By mid-February it became apparent that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary year and our plans for celebrating were quickly dashed.
For the past three and a half decades, Harrolds has built its business on the interaction with and engagement of our clients and our unique and curated fashion collections. We had actively chosen not to have an online platform, opting instead to build the instore experience and our national footprint.
Fortunately, 2020 was the year to launch ecommerce, and we did so in the middle of February.
As they say, timing is everything. In conjunction, we invested heavily in software and technology upgrades allowing the retail teams to be in the driving seat at the heart of the customer experience – virtual styling, private appointments, alternate payment methods, and integrated marketing programs made it possible for us to track and monitor results.
These initiatives have significantly assisted our ability to trade during this challenging period.
I am certain that many of our counterparts had similar strategic plans and hopes of fortune and fame this year. Perhaps next year. Perhaps.
Once upon a time, Melbourne’s thriving city was Australia’s fashion shopping capital and a key driver for out of state and international visitation to Melbourne. We were the envy of other Australian capital cities, namely Sydney, which copied everything that we did.
For Melbourne CBD retailers, there has been a slow but steady decline in business over the past few years, in particular. Core to Melbourne’s retail heart was creativity, this has been lost and weathered away by a lack of vision for retail and business.
The appeal of city shopping has been lost due to consumer perception being eroded – the CBD is perceived as unsafe, unclean and inaccessible.
This coupled with a thriving illegal drug trade in Melbourne’s little streets and lanes, exorbitant rentals where those with the deepest pocket win, limited and expensive parking options, a priority for bicycles and a sheer lack of vision and cohesive strategy for business growth in our capital city.
Whilst there is a strong focus on world class events and food, this has come at the great expense of retail and the retail experience.
The excitement of walking down Collins Street, meandering through laneways and discovering something unique and coveted has been lost to suburban strip shopping, which until COVID-19 was undergoing a renaissance.
Sadly, this too, has fallen foul.
Take Lygon Street for example – once a destination for European flavour and fare, the precinct is suffering from a serious identity crisis and the vacancy rate is extremely high. The strip is in dire need of financial investment by the city to beautify (replace bitumen footpath with bluestone paving) and link it back to the rest of the CBD and other precincts.
Walking the streets of Melbourne recently for the City of Melbourne elections, I was shocked to see the quantity of abandoned stores and lease signage, the quality and low mix of retail to food in certain areas, the clutter of ageing street furniture, buildings and architectural heritage decaying.
The instore retail experience for many stores is non-existent, preferring the cash and wrap model found in large footprint department stores, where the customer helps themselves and good luck trying to find someone to serve you. What has happened to our City retail heart?
Having been involved with the City of Melbourne through its Precinct Program, first as a committee member and then as President (2007-10; 2015-18), and on the Retail and Hospitality Advisory Board over the past 25 years, I felt that the time was right to nominate for this year’s Melbourne City Council election.
I want to change and challenge the conversations occurring at Town Hall. If elected, I hope to be able to deliver a more balanced outcome for the city as a whole, with a strong emphasis on branding Melbourne, instilling confidence and returning prestige to our capital city.
The city needs glue to bring it all together, to be more cohesive and collaborative in its city plan and strategy.
To celebrate all of its attributes, its heritage, it’s art and culture, not just events and laneways. To entice, surprise and delight everyone – patrons, workers, residents and visitors from near and far. To bring back the creativity, the ingenuity and what makes Melbourne marvellous.
But for now, I’m still counting and my eyes are still closed.