For a few days this May, as Melburnians crowded beer gardens and parks to enjoy an unexpectedly late burst of warm weather, Heather Grieve became the face of the mini-heatwave’s downside.
Grieve, 67, sells coats. In fact, she pretty much sells only coats. And May is supposed to be the start of peak coat season, when her North Carlton shop, Picadilly Circus, needs to make big sales to balance out the unavoidably slow period in the warmer months.
“We had 10 days when it was 21 degrees and over about a week into it, the media started ringing up asking, ‘Are you finding your sales have been affected?” says Grieve.
“And I said, ‘Yes, definitely’ and the next thing I know they turn up with a camera and I was on the Channel 9 News, talking about how the heat was bad for business.”
Now, after announcing that Picadilly Circus will soon close, Grieve says warmer weather – not just in May but in general – has possibly contributed to slowing sales. But it’s just one factor among many, including an ageing clientele.
“I was out the front once and these two younger people came walking past and I heard one of them saying, ‘That’s a shop for older people,’ she says.
“And I thought: fair enough.”
For 21 years, Picadilly Circus has stood proudly on the corner of Rathdowne and Princes Streets in North Carlton, across four shop fronts. Her husband Roddy (who died in 2009) established the shop and had the original idea to specialise in coats. At its height in 2004 it sold 14,000 coats (most of that in the peak May to September period) and counts local identities such as underworld figure Mick Gatto among its customers.
Grieve says that, during the warmer months, Picadilly Circus has been the only place in Melbourne north of the river where you can buy a coat (there’s one other specialist coat retailer in Melbourne), with general clothing retailers seeing no point in stocking them when it’s not cold.
Regular passers-by would by now be familiar with the billboard above Picadilly Circus, which has for two decades conveyed either one or another of the shop’s two seasonally specific marketing messages.
Between May and September the sign reads “Now it’s chilly, come to Picadilly”. Then, between October and April, it changes tack: “Going overseas? You’ll need a coat.”
But, after losing $70,000 last year, Grieve can no longer sustain the financial burden of running the store.
She says that, apart from the weather and difficulty attracting younger shoppers, other things such as changing consumer habits, the disappearance of local coat manufacturers and the shop’s failure to offer an online shopping option have all contributed to the decision.
Picadilly’s other signature item is brightly coloured suits. Another of Roddy’s left-field ideas, the suits come in red, bright blue, aqua and pink and retail for $139 (pants and jacket, a waistcoat is extra).
Grieve says the market for coloured suits is surprisingly diverse, with dancers and musicians among the regular buyers. The pink ones do a brisk trade during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Grieve says that one time, Australian Idol runner up Anthony Callea came into the shop in disguise to pick one of them up (she doesn’t remember the colour). And for the past few seasons, the producers of The X Factor have bought them in bulk for the show’s dance numbers.
“Magicians love them as well,” Grieve says. “We’ve even sold suits to people for funerals. Someone lost a mate and the guy had said, ‘If I ever die young, I don’t want people wearing black at my funeral’. And all his mates came in and bought colourful suits. That has happened more than once.”
Greive says that once she sells her remaining stock and shuts up for good, she’s heading to Brisbane to spend more time with her daughter and two grandsons.
When I make the observation that there wouldn’t be much need for coats in Queensland, she agrees.
“I know,” she laughs. “To be honest, I’m not that unhappy about that.”
Heather Grieve admits she had been reluctant to bite the bullet earlier, partly in an attempt to hang on to her husband’s memory.
“I’ve been thinking about this for two years,” says Grieve. “But I don’t like giving up. Then someone said to me recently, ‘Don’t see it as giving up. See it as releasing’.