Beller Commercial recently completed their annual Commercial Retail Research, a matrix of Melbourne’s notable shopping strips which judges their performance over the last year. A unique initiative spearheaded by Beller Commercial Director, Fred Nucara, the Commercial Retail Research report is a detailed run down of the fluctuating fortunes of Melbourne’s famously fickle retail high streets and their performance.
The information in the report is gathered by the Beller team, hitting the streets and literally pounding the pavement in order to converse with retail tenants. Urban Melbourne spoke to Fred Nucara about Beller's research process, the findings of the report and any trends that they have emerged during the period of the research.
Laurence Dragomir: Can you tell us a bit more about the report and the level of research your team undertakes to develop the report and why you do it?
Fred Nucara: Basically what happens is that my team will walk all the shopping strips on this matrix. There's a cross reference process in place; they verify what's available online such as properties for 'For Lease' and match that up with what can be see - are there boards or banners on properties? Are the properties vacant? Are they closing down and so on.
It's time and labour intensive but the results speak for themselves compared to some of the research that has come out from the major agencies in the city which is very much desktop. Not only do the teams want to educate themselves about what's happening on their strip, but we wanted to get a snapshot so that when we are talking to a potential client, if we have a property for lease or for sale we are able to give them real time information about what's going on on that particular strip. There's nothing like first hand knowledge.
We can give examples where say 9 months ago there were 15 vacancies and now there's 20 or now there's 10, and that tells us something. For both our clients interest and our own, it pays to get out there and provide the most up to date information possible.
LD: Each time you do research is it always the same set of shopping strips?
FN: It's the same list of streets that we visit and we don't deviate off that list. I think there's about 23-24 visited each survey and we break it up as there's always markets within markets. A prime example of this is Chapel Street, broken down over it's Windsor, Prahran and South Yarra sections.
LD: Was there anything in particular that surprised you or stood out since you last conducted the research?
FN: The latest round of research was done in April 2015 and before that it was last done during September last year. The big surprise has been that in Chapel Street, South Yarra there has been seven properties let.
In September of last year there were 27 vacancies and as a result there's now only 20, and while it's still an elevated vacancy rate there are signs of recovery. A quarter of the properties taken up in seven months is quite a result.
Another notable result is Swan Street in Richmond, falling from 20 vacancies in September down to 12, which again if you look at that ratio equates to a 40% drop in vacancies. That is actually a pretty decent success rate over a six to seven month period.
If you had to look at the three big results, Bay Street and Church Street in Brighton also fared well. We look at Bay and Church as combined strips in Brighton, so along with the Swan and Chapel strips they make up the three big performers or best improvers over the period. Whitehorse Road, Balwyn was probably another one that jumped out at us, moving from 11 vacancies down to just three.
LD: What do you put that improvement in the space of seven months down to?
FN: There are what we call some general overarching economic reasons as to why this increased level of activity has taken place. In this environment where business funding is pretty low, the confidence exists to borrow as a small business because funding is very cheap.
Alternatively some of these tenants and businesses are acting as owner-occupiers and buying the properties. What that does is it removes them from the tenancy market altogether because they want to become the owner of their freehold and run their business. The other thing too that happens is that landlords' expectations on rent begin to align more with what is considered a feasible proposition for a lot of small businesses.
What I mean by that is if you look at most of these strips, most of the rents will fall between $50,000-80,000 per annum, so there's this band where some rents begin to adjust and landlords begin to treat and transact, in other words the landlord that wants to get $90,000 p.a but is happy to keep cash flow at $80,000.
Even with all the evidence we've got which is shown to the landlord upfront, on occasion they may not accept the figures before them. They may believe their shop is worth $100,000 p.a but we think we're going to get around $70,000 and so often they need time in the market to experience that, and with our research and direct contact with offers from tenants then they begin to align their expectations.
LD: I suppose the one thing that really interests us here at Urban Melbourne is the impact of gentrification and new developments on these strips.
FN: That's a huge impact but it's more of a psychological impact, Laurence and I'll tell you what I mean by that. For example, if you have an area that has a lot of permits approved for apartment developments it is mooted that that area could become a really positive area in the future. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's an impetus for tenants to pick-up vacant space so what we tend to find is the impetus is actually when they start to see cranes and the construction coming out of the ground.
Good examples of this are areas like Collingwood, Fitzroy and Prahran. Cranes equal an increased local population and as a result of that it provides confidence to sign leases. What they're banking on is that they'll be able to attract the new residents across their front door; it creates this wave of activity that's much stronger in areas where they know there are cranes, properties and tenants ready to move in or residents ready to move in.
LD: On that basis do you think that Chapel Street, South Yarra has struggled somewhat because most of the new apartment development has been concentrated within the Forrest Hill precinct and further north along Chapel?
FN: Chapel Street, South Yarra has probably struggled for two reasons. I think one is definitely the concentration around Forest Hill and that has perhaps sapped a bit of the life out of Chapel Street to a degree, but Chapel Street has always commanded premium rents. What's happened there is because it's such a long strip the rents have gotten to a level now where some of these national businesses can barely afford and be profitable, but they do it to have a presence on Chapel Street.
So what you're probably seeing is it's suffered from the rents being traditionally high and it's hard to sustain those rates per sqm in those locations, particularly when you've got Emporium or an expanded Chadstone sucking a portion of the customer base away from Chapel Street, South Yarra. That means less customers through South Yarra, which is quite different to Chapel Street, Windsor by the way - very, very different demographics - so the customers are going and spending there money elsewhere, consequently placing pressure on businesses to pay their rental rate.
LD: Thank you for your time Fred.