Discussion with Bowra St retailers about future of shopping in Nambucca Heads

Take a walk down the Nambucca Heads main drag and, around the Galleria end, things appear rosy - there's a wide array of retailers offering a range of boutique goods and services.

But as you approach the post office end of town, things begin to look a little sparse.

In fact, several locals we've spoken to have said there are currently more vacant shops or businesses for sale on Bowra Street than there has been in living memory.

And the loss of two of the four bank branches on the street has left gaping holes on the landscape.

Even Galleria - touted as a beacon of retail hope for the area - has a 'business for sale' sign beside the front window. Although, we have been told this is mostly due to personal circumstances.

But "it's not just a Nambucca thing" as one Bowra St shop owner put it.

Bricks and mortar retailers across the country are feeling the pinch of online shopping and the encroachment of international brands.

Famous shopping strips in Sydney - like King Street in Newtown - are haemorrhaging shops too.

Even the big boys of retail like Kmart and Target have reported declines in sales throughout 2019 so far.

"I heard an economist say the other day that the retail sector in Australia is officially in recession," Nambucca Heads and Valla Chamber of Commerce president Christian Knight said.

We pounded the pavement to hear where Bowra St shop owners and workers think the problem stems from and what, if anything, can be done about it.

Whodunnit?

Trevor and Julie Edwards have run Coastal Warehouse for 16 years (and owned the business for eight of those years). But a series of injuries and illness has forced their hand; they plan to retire this year.

Their business has been on the market for the past two years, but they've had no real bites in that time.

"Nobody's buying. In two years we've had interest from one person. It's a shame, we thought someone would come along and buy it," Trevor said.

In the next few weeks they plan to put up a 'closing down' sign and by October they'll be out.

According to Trevor, the cost of living is largely to blame.

"There's just not the people around anymore, because it's just got harder and harder to live," he said.

People just don't have the extra money to spend. Even IGA and Woolies are quieter. Everything's gone up and up...but wages haven't.

Margaret Leys helps out in the shop every so often and thinks one big issue is that there are a few holes in the offerings in town.

"There's no butcher, no shoe shop, no kids shop, nowhere to buy ladies underwear," she said.

She thinks if people can't get everything they need from the one place they go somewhere they can, like Coffs Harbour...or online.

"I know one lady who delivers parcels who said that Nambucca really knows how to shop online," Trevor said.

And both agree that unemployment is a real factor.

"There's employment places everywhere, but there's no employment," Margaret said.

For Heidi Cook, who works at one of the Bowra St shops, the most obvious reason is that there's simply nothing drawing in tourists on weekends.

"The street's full of real estate and employment agencies. There's just nothing for people to come and visit, which is a real shame in a tourist town," she said.

"And a lot of shops aren't open on the weekend."

She said the biggest issue with an ageing population is the limit on disposable income.

And the Mid North Coast Local Health District recently predicted that by 2030, over one third of the Nambucca Valley will be 65 and older.

Heidi also said there are rumours that many of the street's landlords aren't locals so they're not invested emotionally in making the place more attractive and can use vacant shops as a "tax lurk".

NSW small business and family enterprise ombudsman Kate Carnell recently said this was a problem across the state.

"One of the great dilemmas we've got is that there is incentives for landlords to leave premises vacant rather than reduce rent. It's simply because of the way banks value properties based on what the rent is," Ms Carnell said.

But not everyone sees a glass half empty when they cast their eyes down Bowra St.

Coastal Curves owner Jenny Ellis, who considers herself an optimist, said she's encouraged by the fact that "someone has given the Westpac building a bit of love and tidied it up".

She acknowledges that online sales have "taken the growth out of retail" but is confident in the pulling power of a place as beautiful as Nambucca.

"In this town there'll always be tourism trade," she said.

And I'm always optimistic that people want the town to survive and don't want it to die.

She does admit that it's hard work starting a business, and that many owners don't make a profit for the first five or so years.

"People need to do it for the love of it, not for the money," Jenny said.

And while people love to hate the arrival of Centrelink to the town and see it as the harbinger of ruin, Jenny points out that it has been here now for quite a while, and that it brings a constant supply of money through the town.

"If it was somewhere else, people would spend that money somewhere else," she said.

Chamber of Commerce's Christian Knight doesn't consider the present state of Bowra St to be any different than it was five years ago, and said that retail is always in a constant state of flux.

But he sees high commercial rent as a contributing factor to the Australia-wide recession, and said digital disruption and online sales would have to be the single-most significant factor.

"But there are also those businesses which operate in the cloud, and they can often be unseen success stories," he said.

What's to be done?

Quite a few of the shopkeepers we spoke to said they couldn't see a way out of this downturn unless the economy improves.

But newcomer to the street, Kirstie Snow, who owns Zen Health and Beauty, believes the only way forward is for retailers to be proactive and move with the times.

She's creating her own artisanal products under the Zen brand - organic coffee scrubs, body butters, essential oil room sprays and roller balls - and will start to market them online on a website she's created, in conjunction with her storefront.

"Sometimes I do feel like giving up because it's so stressful, but I keep soldiering on and hope it gets better," she said.

There's so much that can be done here because it's so beautiful. We have such a gorgeous shoreline, imagine if we had markets in Summer. Even Urunga has a market and it draws people into the town.

"It would also be nice to get a wider diversity of shops and have a bit more of a 'Bellingen by the sea' vibe. But I also don't see a change happening unless there's more local support."

Jenny Ellis thinks investing in the look of the street and encouraging more street dining would help to shake things up.

"It would be great to have a Bello-type cafe here for young people," she said. "You go out to Bellingen or Sawtell on the weekend and a huge portion of the crowd at cafes is from Nambucca."

Even the cafe staff at Galleria would love to see more cafes on the street: "The more the merrier," they said. "If there's more here to do, it will bring more people to the area and that will lift everyone."

Jenny also believes in the potential of the area for start-ups.

And Nambucca is ready to embrace people with a good idea - just take a look at the success of Michaela Bush's Detour Espresso Bar at the entrance to the industrial estate.

Jenny is also hopeful about the direction council is heading in to build Nambucca up.

There are big things afoot at the V-Wall, and earlier this year council met with the Chamber of Commerce to discuss a masterplan to improve the aesthetic and functionality of the entrance to Nambucca via Mann St. More will be discussed about this in time.

NB: For the purpose of keeping this article at a semi-reasonable length, we decided to focus solely on Bowra St in Nambucca Heads. We intend to investigate the situation in other towns in the Shire in future articles.

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