Are we over online shopping? Why Australians are going back to shops – Sydney Morning Herald

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If last year was meant to be a #hotvaxsummer (until Omicron had other ideas), then summer 2022 could be dubbed #hotmallsummer, if the sheer number of high-fashion store openings at shopping centres and strips is any guide.
During the peak COVID period, the proportion of retail sales completed online jumped to record highs, thanks to protracted lockdowns, especially in Victoria, and the fear of catching coronavirus from escalator handrails (which we now know, thanks to aerosol science, is very low).
New stores for (clockwise from top left) Aje Athletica Highpoint, Mecca Double Bay, Mimco Chadstone, Mecca Sorrento.
But as Australians largely learn to “live with COVID”, even as case numbers bob up and down and Queensland reinstates some recommendations around mask-wearing, there has been an uptick in people venturing to the shops, and physical retail sales. The early Christmas postal deadlines – three weeks away for most regular parcels – are another reason more people may choose to do their shopping in person, too.
“There has been a remarkable shift back to stores post pandemic,” says Gary Mortimer, a professor of marketing at Queensland University of Technology.
Mortimer says that in November 2021 Australians spent $4.4 billion in online retail shopping, but that figure had declined to $3.5 billion by September 2022.
Expansion mode … Aje co-founder Adrian Norris at the Bondi Junction Athletica store. 
It’s not that people aren’t shopping – they are. Lisa Bora, head of retail for KPMG Australia, says consumers are going to the shops not just to buy something but for a “strong brand experience”. Before COVID, in-store sales were growing at 4.4 per cent, and are now increasing by 9.7 per cent annually, she says.
So, it’s not just a case of “build it, and they will come”, but more build it, stock it, add some of that “surprise and delight” marketers eat for breakfast, and then maybe they will come.
Mortimer suspects nearly $1 billion in sales has moved from online back to physical retail, and brands are rushing to open new stores and upgrade existing ones in a pre-Christmas flurry.
Brands that have logged new store openings in the past few weeks, and in the days ahead, include Mecca (Double Bay, NSW, and Sorrento, Vic), Mimco (Chadstone, Vic, and Sydney Central, NSW), Venroy (Byron Bay), Scanlan Theodore (Emporium, Vic, and Claremont, WA) and Aje Athletica (Highpoint, Vic).
Since Aje launched its athleisure sub-brand Athletica in mid-2021, the company has opened 14 stores in NSW, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia. Co-founder Adrian Norris explains it had been difficult to secure retail space in Victoria, which is why the state is only getting its first stores this month (a second location, in Doncaster, will open in December).
Holidaymakers to Byron Bay can get their retail fix at the new Venroy store.
“Everyone puts so much pressure on brands to do things at the right point at the right time, but life doesn’t always go exactly to plan,” he says.
Bora says any brand opening new stores in 2022-23 must be cognisant of customer shopping behaviours, including working-from-home arrangements. She cautions against brands opening too many or too large stores, and says retailers need to preface experiences over mere product range availability in physical spaces.
“People are looking for a reason to come into physical locations; they can shop your range and many others online, and with delivery getting faster … you need to drive people in with experience,” she says.
Norris sees the Athletica stores as calm, flexible spaces rooted in fashion – “not a fast, fluorescent-lit sports store” – that could be used for events, for instance, wellness sessions. And while he’s cognisant of technological trends in retail, such as the metaverse and virtual try-ons, he isn’t rushing to sign up. Why show someone on a screen what the leggings can look like when you can entice them to come in and try them? And when they do, make sure they get great service, and a feeling of self-care, as if they had just done a yoga class or had a massage.
Scanlan Theodore’s stores boast contemporary art and period furniture to entice design-led shoppers.
“We’re in a period when it’s more difficult to convince people to buy things, so you want every experience where customers are handing over their money to be beautiful,” he says.
Scanlan Theodore’s head of retail, Helen Marshall, agrees, which is why, under veteran interior designer Don McQualter, the brand peppers its stores with designer furniture and contemporary art – features that cannot be easily replicated online. The new Emporium store includes a 1940s Murano glass chandelier, mid-century furniture and a VIP shopping suite with its own bar.
A new look can also directly impact sales, as Mimco has learnt. Since opening its Chadstone store last month, sales have jumped 25 per cent, says head of marketing Sonya Bennett (Sydney Central opens on December 1).
Jerry Macey, executive manager, retail and diversified industries at Commonwealth Bank, says most consumers will continue to get the “stuff of life” – groceries, pet food, pharmaceuticals – delivered post-COVID, while physical stores will be for inspiration, entertainment and, particularly in the case of young people, a way to engage with the circular economy, for example take-backs or fashion-rental services.
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