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Ashburton and the rise of Chadstone Shopping Centre

This is the second post in my series on interesting things I find in Ashburton’s old community newspaper Progress Press (1946-63)

In the mid-1950s, the Ashburton High Street shops were at the height of their popularity. They were almost all operated by the owner, giving them a solid reputation for excellent customer service.

The women of Ashburton (who were usually responsible for all the shopping) relied on the quality, reliability, variety and prices of the Ashburton stores. There were several butchers, grocers, pharmacies and bakers (as there is today, but independently owned); and also several department stores selling clothing, manchester and household goods; shoe stores; milk bars and homemade cake shops; a car dealership; a plant nursery; several bookstores and newsagents; and representation from all the major banks.

So you would think the Ashburton shop-owners would be mobilised and actively protesting the proposal to build Australia’s largest shopping mall a few kilometres down the road.


The rise of the shopping mall

Shopping malls are a distinctly American invention that emerged in the 1950s. The idea of clustering small shops around a larger one – usually a department store – was not new. However, housing them all under one roof and creating a social culture around the establishment began with the Southdale Centre in Edina, Minnesota in 1956. Although the Southdale Centre struggled financially for years, by 1960, there were 4,500 shopping malls in the United States.

The rise of the shopping mall was directly connected to the proliferation of car ownership in the late 1950s. Cars gave shoppers more freedom to choose where they wanted to shop. They allowed people to leave the cities for the suburbs where there would be a larger variety of shops and plenty of car parking. Shopping malls offered all the conveniences of shopping and entertainment in one place.

Myer and Chadstone Shopping Centre

Myer Department Stores were a Melbourne institution by the 1950s. Founded by Sidney Myer in 1900, Myer profited immensely from Australia’s post-World War II prosperity. Its famous Bourke Street Christmas window display began when the 1956 Olympic Games brought renewed attention to Melbourne and an influx of international visitors.

Picture of Chadstone during its construction phase 1959-60
Chadstone during its construction phase 1959-60

The Myer business model involved building and owning the stores themselves, rather than renting out pre-built retail space. Sometime in the 1950s, Myer management decided to combine its store building model with the American shopping mall concept.

By engaging E A Watts Pty Ltd builders, Myer became the cornerstone of the proposed Chadstone Shopping Centre. In collaboration with 100 tenants, including several businesses still operating today like Sussan, Rockmans, Portmans, Prouds Jewellers, and Williams shoes; Myer expected to draw between 75,000 and 100,000 people to the Centre every week.

To get the ball rolling, Myer teamed up with American property developers involved in the shopping mall boom. In an interview in the Ashburton newspaper Progress Press published in January 1960, Mr Keith Kelly of Larry Smith Inc advised that if Chadstone developed like similar centres in the US, the vast majority of visitors will go there by car.

‘But Chadstone won’t change people’s shopping habits,’ Mr Kelly told the reporter. ‘They will still shop on the busy shopping days towards the weekend and on Mondays.’

His research suggested that each of Chadstone’s proposed 2,000 carparking spots would turnover 4.6 cars each day. As the primary shopping district before Chadstone, Melbourne's CBD had very limited carparking availability. This meant Chadstone's parking capacity alone all but guaranteed its success.

According to the American experience, two people from the outer areas of the shopping mall would visit to every one living closer to the CBD. There was already a rapidly growing population east of the shopping centre. Mr Kelly believed rapidly developing areas like Mulgrave would be the main source of Chadstone’s customers, not the residents from East Malvern, Ashburton, Glen Iris and Camberwell.

He also thought women would not ‘dress up’ to go to Chadstone, like they do when they go to the City. ‘This doesn’t mean that everybody runs round in shorts and jeans but they do adopt more casual dress,’ he mused.

It’s a good thing he is not alive to see what people wear there now, myself included.

Ashburton shop-owners finally hear the wake up siren

You know how there is nothing Australians love more than bettering Americans? E A Watts built the first section of the Myer-centric shopping mall in an extraordinarily short 18 months. The Americans usually built theirs in 2 to 3 years. They were suitably impressed.

Myer scheduled Chadstone’s opening for October 1960, to take advantage of the Christmas shopping period.

It was ten weeks before opening day when the penny finally dropped for most Ashburton shop-keepers. The lack of any car parking facilities near the High Street strip set it at a considerable disadvantage to Chadstone. There were also no amenities for the predominantly female shoppers either. Chadstone offered women a ‘comfort station’ where they could change babies or ‘have a quiet cigarette’.

Ashburton shopkeepers were ‘kidding themselves if they did not expect to lose trade to Chadstone Shopping Centre,’ Lou Cookson, the President of the Ashburton Chamber of Commerce told an assembled group of concerned shop-keepers in August 1960. Numerous small retail centres in the US had already closed because of new shopping malls.

‘Ashburton has never before had to face competition from another shopping centre. Chadstone is a serious threat to your business,’ he told them.

Cookson lamented the ‘tremendous apathy’ of shopkeepers. For thirty years, difficulty with transport meant people in Ashburton shopped in Ashburton, and those in Camberwell shopped in Camberwell. But cars changed all that. Australia now had one car to every 3.12 people. And they were using them.

It wasn’t just the proliferation of cars either. A worldwide trend towards larger, self-selection stores, the development of shopping centres, and the entry of big business into retail selling were the complete antithesis of the on the owner-occupier shops of Ashburton.

‘I’m pulling no punches,’ Mr Cookson continued. ‘Unless some virile organisation is formed you will see depreciating values in freeholds in Ashburton.’

Another member went further. ‘What the shopkeeper did in the past to attract trade was peanuts compared with what they would have to do to hold the trade they have now,’ Mr Jack Dennington said.

Shop-keepers needed to concentrate on giving service, to ‘put colour and light into the premises, provide real bargains and put in all kinds of gimmicks and demonstrations to attract shoppers, like offering a shopper a cup of tea without having to have a meal.’

Members of the community wrote in to Progress Press to express their loyalty to the Ashburton shopkeepers. ‘Husbands will take their wives over on a Saturday morning for a while but the novelty will soon wear off,’ Mrs Pincott wrote optimistically.

But Mr Robert Gamble was more cynical. ‘Customers, on self admission are loyal only to the extent to which it suits them,’ he wrote in an opinion piece. He worked for a merchandising department so he knew what he was talking about. Recent company research had revealed to him that housewives will shop where they are offered the best selection of merchandise at competitive prices. This is what Chadstone offered.

‘Chermside is a busy, thriving shopping centre, fed by trams, buses and cars,’ Mr Gamble wrote. ‘But what about the original shopping centre? Once you’ve parked your car five blocks away and battled your way across Northern Highway, you can get immediate service but only because you are the only customer.’

In conclusion he wrote, ‘I want the best shopping and car park facilities for my wife. She will shop where these are provided and at the date of writing this letter, it is NOT (his emphasis) at Ashburton. All because shopkeepers won’t get behind their well-informed president, form a united front and do something to save our own shopping centre.’

Ashburton fights back

The shaming worked. At the next Chamber of Commerce meeting, several new members joined. Lou Cookson stood down and the younger Malcolm Whiffin stepped in as president.

If it seems like the rise of Chadstone put Ashburton shop-keepers on the back foot, at least they had organised into a Chamber of Commerce. According to the Progress Press, the 500 shops of Camberwell only did so a few months before the shopping centre opened.

The Ashburton Chamber of Commerce voted to adopt the slogan ‘Ashburton for Service’ and agreed to offer a wide range of goods, with specials to attract shoppers.

‘I am confident we shall retain the support of our shoppers; friendliness and service is our feature and our future,’ Mr Whifflin said.

As the ‘to let’ signs began appearing on High Street, the Chamber set about tackling Camberwell Council about its parking problem.

Chadstone opens

Chadstone Shopping Centre opened its doors on 4 October 1960. At the Grand Opening in front of 30,000 people, Premier Henry Bolte stated ‘Chadstone shopping centre is fabulous. There is none better anywhere in the world.’

Shoppers at Chadstone, 1960

In the first two weeks of operation, 500,000 people passed through Chadstone, with 70,000 on the first Sunday alone. There had been no problems with the 50,000 vehicles using the car park either, according to the Centre manager Mr V M Upson.

First edition of Chadstone Progress showing its distribution reach

One of the first marketing strategies Chadstone started was its own community newspaper, an off-shoot of the Progress Press. Pitched at women, the first year the Chadstone Progress stuck to promoting women’s fashion, household appliances, grocery specials, and the advertisements of its retailers. It also included a few lightweight news items. Today, the pictures of models that don’t look like skinny teenagers are quite refreshing and there’s even an advertisement for Chadstone featuring two decidedly matronly looking women. But the fashion tips for ‘cuddly’ women on how to look ‘just as attractive as your slimmer friends?’ Yikes.

Ashburton strikes back

Ad in Progress Press, 1961

Meanwhile, the shop-keepers of the Ashburton Chamber of Congress banded together to promote their businesses en masse in Progress Press. They ran a window display competition for Christmas; and another to have some kind of ‘object’ erected at the commencement of the shopping strip. The winning entry was an ‘arch’ but it appears nothing was ever actually built.

Parking Map, 1961

The Council even came through with additional parking spaces in Marquis Street and took on the Railway Board about providing parking near Ashburton Station on Welfare Parade.

At Easter, they organised an Easter Hat Parade and awarded prizes to the smartest, most original, most humorous and prettiest child’s hat. It was well attended and popular but just could not compete with the Easter Fair at Chadstone.

It was tough going. In its first nine months of operation, Chadstone saw 5 million people through its doors. This amounted to every person in Melbourne visiting at least twice.

In August 1961, Mal Whifflin stepped down from the Chamber of Commerce to be replaced by Harry Cake. In his final report Whifflin wrote,

‘Chadstone served as a stimulus to such centres as ours. [We needed] to become conscious of our shortcomings, to organise ourselves and actively promote our centres. Much of the uncertainty has passed but it is too early to become complacent.’
Easter Hats in the Ashburton Easter Parade, 1961

Mr Cake focused the Chamber of Commerce on subsiding its food retailers to sell ‘specials’ far below cost. Exactly how many shops remained operational is not clear. However, there was a stark absence of advertisements for non-food retailers in the Progress Press within a year.

Miss Australia, Rosemary Fenton, visits Chadstone, 1961

As Chadstone went from strength to strength, Ashburton’s retailers tried valiantly to keep their shopping strip alive. But then came another blow.

In 1963, Chadstone Progress merged with Progress Press. In the previous three years, it retained its cover page women’s fashion article but had begun to cover more serious topics and included sporting results. It also reached over 100,000 readers; five times the number of the Progress Press. Both papers were produced from the same office and although there is no article mentioning it, economically I expect it made sense to merge the two.

With this act, Ashburton’s shop-keepers lost the competitive edge a local newspaper gave them over Chadstone.

Things were about to get a lot worse.

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