Shopping in Melbourne

If you like to shop, Melbourne is your city. I’m not the most avid shopper in the world, but in Melbourne, I shopped, and shopped, and shopped some more.

I was as close as I could get to my weight limit on the plane back to Europe, what with the clothes, footwear, health supplements, essential oils, papaya balm, tea tree cream, and various presents for friends.

I bought baseball caps, socks and scarves for a dollar in Cotton On, and now have new tracksuit trousers, leggings, cardigans, shorts, t-shirts, skirts and a bikini; everything was cheaper than back home in France, and the colours were much more vibrant. I won’t need to go clothes shopping for quite some time; my spring and summer wardrobes are literally in the bag.

Customer service

Melburnians describe their city as the fashion, cultural, sporting, and restaurant capital of Australia. I would certainly designate it as the shopping capital. And the French could learn a lot from the Australians about customer service. Back in France, I miss the smiles and courtesy of Australian shop assistants.

I also miss the cheese-flavoured corn chips, the Ferguson Plarre bakery’s veggie pies, the gellati, and the chai latte.

Most of my purchasing was done in Melbourne’s suburban shopping centres (Airport West, Moonee Ponds, Broadmeadows, and Highpoint) and I of course discovered that distinctive Australian shopping experience, the Direct Factory Outlet (DFO), where you find big brands like Quiksilver and Billabong all under one roof. I found the DFOs expensive, but if you can afford it, you can get high-quality merchandise at a reduced price.

The most fun, and the best places for bargains, are the Op Shops (Opportunity Shops), second-hand shops that come in all shapes and sizes. In Savers, the huge recycle superstore in Brunswick, I found shirts and some gorgeous silk shorts for just a few dollars. And then there are the two-dollar shops, where I found yet more presents and plenty of nicknacks for myself.

At the other end of the shopping scale there are the stunningly original glass works on display at the Kirra Galleries on Federation Square. The galleries also showcase Australian handmade jewellery, ceramics, timber, and sculpture. Exhibitions are held throughout the year and the galleries’ artists participate in the acclaimed Sculpture Objects & Functional Art Fair (SOFA) in Chicago.

Aboriginal art

There are, of course, a host of shops and galleries selling Aboriginal art. Original & Authentic Aboriginal Art in Bourke Street is a popular gallery showing works by established and new artists. The Alcaston Gallery in Brunswick Street has six exhibition spaces and an artist’s studio area. The Koorie Heritage Trust is a community organisation that houses four gallery spaces, a permanent interactive exhibition, and a retail shop that sells books, artwork, artefacts, native bush foods, ceramics and glassware, clothing, jewellery, and souvenirs.

I did manage to do some sightseeing in Melbourne, and one of the places I visited was the State Library of Victoria, with its magnificent La Trobe Reading Room. The exhibition I saw in the library was entitled ‘til you drop. No prizes for guessing what it was about. Shopping.

The La Trobe Reading Room (photo taken by David Iliff)

The exhibition draws the links between shopping and cultural and social developments like increased leisure time, immigration, and suburban sprawl. It features classic photographs that evoke the changes that have occurred over the past century.


There are photos of Sharpies, the nattily dressed teenagers who ruled the Melbourne streets in the 1960s and ‘70s. Sharpies wore striped cardigans or “connies” made by local knitters Conte and Sangs. Their custom-made shoes had chisel toes and Cuban heels.

The Sharpies hung out in milk bars. In the 1950s, 73 per cent of Melbourne’s confectionery, ice cream and soft drinks, and 33 per cent of its tobacco were sold in milk bars. In their heydey – the 1950s and 1960s – milk bars were the main meeting place for teenager, but by the 1970s, shopping centres and fast-food franchises took over.

In the late 19th century, the Victorian capital became known as Marvellous Melbourne and ‘til you drop reminds us why. There are photos of Collins Street when it was a centre for chic. The arrival of outdoor cafés and glamorous stores like Georges gave a European flavour to the eastern end of the street, which was referred to as the “Paris end”. When the Myer Emporium opened in 1911, it brought innovation with services like hairdressing, and its famous Christmas windows.

In the 20th century, suburban supermarkets drew shoppers away from the city centre and inner-city traders now need imagination to keep their businesses alive. The current trend is multi-purpose retail spaces that are also galleries, cafés, or workshops. Curtin House in Swanston Street is the epitome of space maximisation; it’s been dubbed a “vertical laneway”.

Every one of the six storeys is being used and the building houses a bar and restaurant, a live music venue, a book store, fashion boutiques, a graphic design studio, and a rooftop cinema in summer. “Vertical retailing” is the Melbourne developers’ latest watchword.


Today’s Melbourne is more multi-cultural than ever and on markets like the one at Footscray you’ll find all manner of exotic foods and arts and crafts. There are long-standing Chinese, Italian and Greek communities, but the latest census shows that the city is now home to immigrants from 233 countries. Melbourne has the largest Vietnamese, Indian, and Sri Lankan communities in Australia.

Queen Victoria Market has been an institution since 1878 and has had a colourful and sometimes controversial history. It stands on a site that was Melbourne’s first official cemetery and the remains of 9,000 early settlers are still buried beneath what is now the car park. The market is huge, covering about seven hectares, and is divided into various precincts like the Deli Hall, which still retains its original marble counters. It is best known for fresh produce, but you can find everything from clothing and jewellery to luggage and souvenirs.

Back in Europe I am getting good use out of my Melbourne purchases, not least the eco-friendly, non-toxic drink bottles and the jumbo sun shelter. My brother has a stubby holder to keep his beer bottles cool, my friends are enjoying the handmade soaps and candles, and I’m now ordering Aussie products on the Internet.

’til you drop
New Skins ‘n’ Sharps exhibition in Hawthorne, Melbourne

© Annette Gartland