The tragic saga of the sinking of Brisbane’s iconic Toombul Shopping Centre has starkly highlighted the shifting structure of retail experiences in our cities.
The centre was completely inundated during the “rain bomb” floods in February and the owners have subsequently announced that the damage is too profound to restore the facility in its current form.
The decision is understandable, but it also spells heartbreak for tenants, workers and a community which has long regarded “Toombul” as its beating heart.
It has sparked a broader social, economic and experiential discussion about the very nature of the way we shop and the role of retail hubs in community life.
Then there is the impact on the delicately balanced northside retail ecosystem. It is akin to taking a planet out of a solar system. Suddenly the gravitational forces that hold things in place go haywire and move into brutal realignment.
Little wonder that people complained it was taking hours to exit the nearby Chermside shopping centre. Everything is out of kilter.
I have only been a Brisbane northsider for a few years, but long before it became my “local” the legend of Toombul was well known to me.
As a child growing up in a country town in the early seventies, our beach holiday often involved a week at Redcliffe. And a Redcliffe holiday was not complete without a day trip to Toombul.
Back when most shopping was still in high streets and mega shopping centres were still emerging, Toombul was a seriously cool experience.
There were shops we had never seen before, lots of kids’ entertainment and big stores full of wonderful toys and gadgets that pushed the imagination. All the eating places were together, and the choice seemed endless.
Even as bigger satellite shopping centres emerged and Toombul with its distinctive arches became less unique, this centre held on to a little of its mystique.
It had the big brands, but there were also stores that had a local, neighbourhood feel. The most recent renovation added a second-dimension upstairs food and entertainment area that reinforced the eclectic mix. It was like the Millennium Falcon of the retail world – formidable and impressive, yet a little bit eccentric and structurally atypical.
In an era when so much retail has gone online, it is curious to see just how much people are mourning the loss of a bricks and mortar centre.
And in the reminiscence, people inevitably hark back to the experiences that go beyond retail. The Toombul centre, largely due to the legendary Barry Bull from Toombul Music, was regularly the scene for appearances from some of the world’s leading music acts.
Think Ronan Keating, Cliff Richard, The Corrs, Kiss, John Denver, Slim Dusty and the Village People.
In fact, these types of experiences used to be common as part of our retail experience mix in centres across our cities – record and book signing, and kids shows every Saturday morning.
These things still happen to varying degrees, but it seems harder in 2022 to establish the soul to support the retail body.
Shopping centres cannot compete with the vast inventory online, but they are an essential part of our social and consumer experience. There is still no substitute for picking something up or trying it on. Yet the struggle to keep critical mass in a viable way without thoroughly discounting the experience remains real.
The danger is that all the experiences start to feel sub-optimal. There is plenty online, but we can only see it through a virtual filter.
At the same time, it gets harder to capture the magic of mega destination shopping. High streets and main streets across the world have struggled to retain their hub status and compete with the mega centres.
Cities have worked hard to pump-prime “precincts” but even some of those have way too many “for lease” signs as they try to find the magic mix to bring in a critical mass of local regulars and cross-towners. Big city CBDs are regrouping after Covid-19 drained their marketplace.
It feels like we are ripe for another reinvention of our retail and precinct environments.
Thankfully Australia is seeing more clever and innovative development that seeks to blend our living environment with our eating and shopping experiences (like West Village at West End).
Brisbane may never again see the likes of Toombul Shopping Centre. But we should seek to preserve in a bottle some of the magic dust that made it special.
Shane Rodgers is a business executive, writer, strategist and marketer with a deep interest in what makes people tick and the secret languages of the workplace.
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