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From the time Robert Dundas Murray described Melbourne as a 'great commercial emporium' in A summer at Port Phillip (1843), shopping has played an intimate role in the success of its economy and the wellbeing of its citizens. Its large, well-stocked and handsome shops were a common measure of progress in the colonial city, and the shopper was the target of successive waves of advertising strategies and building technologies, from the traditional shop signs and goods exposed for sale on footpaths in the mid-19th century to the window-dressing and lighting techniques of the 20th. The demands of the shopper and the shopkeeper continue to fashion the regulation and experience of the city's economy, street life, city planning, transport and leisure.

Shopping in metropolitan Melbourne has ranged from bargain-hunting to the carriage trade. Bargain-hunting remains in vogue, but the carriage trade has been overtaken by recreational shopping, sometimes described as conspicuous consumption. Bargain-hunting was traditionally done in markets such as the Eastern, Western and Queen Victoria markets, which sold fresh food, clothing and household goods. Before and after World War II, cash-and-carry grocers and discount and variety stores advertised weekly specials for thrifty shoppers, and department stores had stocktake, catalogue and post-Christmas sales. 'Super specials', attracting the keenest of bargain-hunters, have sometimes caused difficulties with crowd control. During World War II, rationing saw the virtual disappearance of some goods at the Queen Victoria Market, but a black market flourished and could be found in most neighbourhood shopping centres.

In the 1950s shoppers had to visit a grocer, a butcher, a fruiterer, a delicatessen, a baker, a confectioner, a milk bar, a hotel or licensed grocer, a newsagent and an ironmonger to buy most of what could later be found at a supermarket. Shoppers were drawn by the convenience of one-stop shopping, along with the convenience of car-parking and, later, electronic funds transfer at point of sale (EFTPOS). Attempts were also made to encourage shoppers to take home and heat up semi-prepared meals. But some regard the prospect of traipsing around aisles with dismay, cutting short their supermarket expeditions and returning at frequent intervals for just-in-time resupply, and the fresh-food markets continue to do well.

Since the 1950s the widespread availability of consumer durables and greater spending power have produced a surplus of unwanted or redundant second-hand goods, especially furniture. Some of these goods go to opportunity shops - the low-price end of bargain-hunting - but many go to second-hand dealers. The demise of the Eastern and Western markets in the 1950s and the general suburbanisation of shopping led dealers to set up stalls in out-of-town weekend or suburban markets, such as the Camberwell Sunday Market. Shoppers can browse the stalls, an enjoyable pastime, or browse the classified columns. At the beginning of the 21st century there were over 100 regular markets in metropolitan Melbourne. Bargain-hunting is also done through the pages of the Melbourne Trading Post (founded 1966), a classified advertising weekly and the first of its kind in Australia, and increasingly on the Internet.

Carriage-trade shopping demanded promenading and being seen - but not being seen carrying a parcel, which was a deliveryman's job. The Mutual Store (Flinders Street) and Hicks Atkinson (Collins Street) had carriage-trade shopping, but by the 1950s they were out of touch with a new kind of higher-class shopping. The department stores took the limelight, particularly with fashion parades for wealthy shoppers. Myer's parades featured in metropolitan newspaper and magazine fashion pages.

The suburbanisation of shopping during the 1960s and 1970s drew shoppers to homogeneous freestanding shopping malls, diluting the appeal of the classy exclusiveness that had clung to the city. The better suburban shopping strips such as Chapel Street also lost tone. The homogeneous standards of improved lighting and acrylic carpet (replacing linoleum) were but two examples of the appeal of modern shopping centres, which also had plenty of car-parking space, an advantage that strip-shopping centres took decades to match by gradual property acquisitions in nearby streets.

Despite several refurbishments, some freestanding centres became stale, and city blocks and suburban strips - as sites of promenading and open-air dining - had an eclectic buzz that managed centres could not quite acquire. Classy shopping, sensitive to ambience, went to streets where it could be seen: Church Street, Brighton, Maling Road, Canterbury, and Chapel Street, Prahran. A little down-market, Bridge Road in Richmond became a compulsory stop for conducted shopping tours, with Australia's largest concentration of factory outlets and fashion seconds stores, and just enough coffee shops for breaks during shop-to-shop browsing. In the 2000s Smith Street, Collingwood, was added to shopping-tour maps.

Shopping often creates personal debt. Notions of thrift, instilled by religious teaching, were reinforced by the grinding years of the depression. Significant credit retailing came after World War II, and after full employment was achieved, wage packets were matched by well-stocked show rooms. In 1950 the total Australian hire-purchase debt was £70.3 million, and it grew seven-fold in the following 10 years, used mainly to buy private motor cars, furniture and electrical goods. Repossessions, which could be embarrassingly obvious to neighbours, were evidence of shoppers falling behind with repayments.

In 1954 a new form of consumer debt came with Diners Club credit cards, used for travel and entertainment by business people. In 1974 most Australian adults with bank accounts were offered Bankcard credit cards, and in 1984 EFTPOS gave shoppers immediate access to their accounts.

Just-in-time shoppers revel in the unregulated shopping hours that supermarkets persuaded the State Government to approve over the period 1988-96. The shopping experience for Melburnians also became more casual and less of a planned expedition. Sundays could be spent browsing the bulky-goods retail warehouses along arterial roads such as Maroondah Highway. Expansive floor areas allow comprehensive display, easily accessible to car owners, but too-distant car parking, a lack of compactness and long stretches between places for refreshment can cause such centres to fail.

Shoppers have an abiding fondness for well-presented, relatively compact department stores. David Jones opened new stores in Glen Waverley and Chadstone during the late 1990s. The really classy store, however, fell on misfortune: the revamped Georges of Collins Street misjudged its market in 1998 and became Melbourne's highest-class op-shop when the Brotherhood of St Laurence opened a recycled fashion outlet there. Classy stores have been replaced by classy shopping strips, from Church Street, Brighton, to Chapel Street, Prahran, with boutiques and all manner of specialty shops. These streets provide a sense of promenading reminiscent of the Block Arcade, an ambience that even the fanciest shopping malls have failed to emulate.

John Young And Peter Spearritt

See also

Galleria Plaza