2013 Corner stores on the wane

Delicatessen corner food shop, Western Australia Image:Alamy

In 2013, the Australian industry research group BIS Shrapnel reported a 34% decrease in the number of corner stores between 2010 and 2012. They attributed this to the rise in the number of petrol stations incorporating convenience stores with expanded food and beverage offerings. Many of these were owned by Coles or Woolworths. An estimated 2725 corner stores remained, with the average annual takings decreasing from $985,000 to $750,000 in the previous two years.

Australian Food News reported in 2012 that the number of traditional milk bars in Australia had significantly declined over the past 30 years from an estimated 6000 or more milk bars in the State of Victoria alone in the 1970s. During the 1980s the Victorian government approved Sunday trading for larger grocery stores. This flexibility in opening hours had previously been confined to milk bars and some convenience stores and the relaxation of trading hours had a negative effect on the milk bar businesses.

Milk bars also suffered from competition from the new format of the convenience store combined with a petrol station. Many milk bars failed to adapt to changing technologies and had an over-reliance on tobacco products – further factors in the decline of many corner stores.  Law changes have reduced the consumption of tobacco but have also increased tobacco tax and selling restrictions. The mobile phone was another technology that changed customer behaviour. Pre-paid phone cards disappeared – another instance where the old corner stores were caught unprepared for the changes.

It’s not all bad news, however. The article reported that, bucking the trend, some old milk bars and corner stores have become “gold mines” for those who have used their favourable, close-to-home location to sell deli-fresh foods and ready-to-eat cooked meals.

The major chains are fighting back with smaller format stores: Woolworths Metro and Coles Local. The first Coles Local opened in late 2018 in the Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills,  followed by a store in St Kilda, Melbourne in 2019.

The coronavirus epidemic in 2020 saw many returning to corner stores as a way of avoiding busy supermarkets. However, small shopkeepers often had difficulty obtaining stock during product shortages, with manufacturers giving preference to their larger customers.

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