A farewell to ABC Shops

It used to be all about the bananas. The ones in pyjamas, of course – B1, B2 and their other pals from Cuddles Avenue. An endearing song from Play School spun off into its own series with all the merchandise imaginable.

In their prime, the Bananas in Pyjamas had a network of embassies across the country, with ABC Shops in most major malls and city centres that sold their replica toys, books, DVDs. The perfect gift for Christmas, if you like anthropomorphic, sleepwear-clad fruit.

There were the Wiggles too, of course, bringing skivvies back into the mainstream where they have always belonged, and let’s not forget Doctor Who. Even before the series returned, it was one of the most highly-trafficked areas in ABC Shops, and the reboot has unleashed a huge range of DVDs, novels, toy Daleks and TARDISes, and even funky Doctor Who cushions.

Sometimes past incarnations of the Doctor would even materialise for an in-store signing, leading to enormous queues and keeping the cash registers beeping more rapidly than the console on a Gallifreyan time machine.

Nowadays, Peppa Pig is queen of the ABC Shop. On a recent visit to the Queen Victoria Building branch, my five-year-old nephew and I counted no less than seven incarnations of her, each one larger than him, although a range of sizes is of course available. Books, games, clothes, backpacks, water bottles, books, and even a Peppa playhouse are on sale – no less than 272 products in all.

My nephew and I had a ball looking at all the different ABC products, but what excited him most was when we discovered the little table in the corner with a range of iPads tethered to it, each one running iView. We lingered while he watched his favourite programs for free as he navigated around an app that he could operate before he could talk in complete sentences.

And therein lies the ABC Shop’s problem, and the reason the national broadcaster announced today that its national network of 50 retail outlets will close in the coming months. Today, there’s an ABC Shop in just about every major mall across Australia, 50 outposts where you can feel the comfy embrace of the national broadcaster as soon as you walk in the door. By 2017, there will in all likelihood be none.

It’s hard to dispute that the internet offers a better way to distribute video and audio content than DVDs, CDs, and even those USB sticks of Richard Fidler’s Conversations that have apparently done brisk trade in recent years. In these cases, the end viewer and listener experiences are more or less identical, but the delivery platform is instantaneous.

I will argue loud and long with anyone who thinks print books have no future, but even here the internet can provide mail-orders from a larger range than any retailer can offer.

I’ve long shopped at the ABC Shop for Christmas and birthday presents, especially for little kids who love nothing more than a stuffed toy, but no retailer could survive just on those kinds of items, especially when they’re also stocked by those ubiquitous discount department stores.

This change has taken place across the retail sector. When I was growing up, music and video stores were everywhere, and I would constantly drop in to listen to the latest releases on a CD listening post. Nowadays, when a new album is released, I just go straight to a streaming service.

I haven’t bought a DVD or CD for personal consumption in many years, so I’m one whose purchasing practices have driven yet another nail into the coffin of these kinds of retailers. Many, like Brashs, are long gone, while other operators like JB Hi-Fi who once sold mainly media items have shifted to sell devices instead, but that’s not an option for the ABC. In some respects, it’s remarkable those Shops have survived this long.

And yet the closure of the ABC Shops will mean more than just a reduction in our Peppa-purchasing opportunities. I’ve visited more than my fair share over the years, thanks to the Chaser’s brief heyday in the mid-2000s, when we used to make pilgrimages around the country signing books and DVDs, and I’ll miss them.

To regular customers, ABC Shops are the ABC, and the staff will tell you that they’re constantly fielding enquiries, comments and occasionally brickbats about programming, transmission and all other aspects of what the national broadcaster does.

When the doors close, it will no doubt feel to some as though the ABC has in some tangible sense departed from those communities. On-air personalities won’t drop in regularly to the places where most of us do our weekly shop, and the regular outside broadcasts in those stores, often timed to coincide with Christmas shopping, will cease.

But that said, the ABC’s connection with the community is moving online too. If you want to contact the national broadcaster, you don’t need to go and chat to a teenager working a retail job while they study. Nowadays you can directly tweet Leigh Sales, Costa Georgiadis and even the managing director himself.

Still, I’ll miss the chance to walk through the doors of an ABC Shop – there’s one in the foyer at Ultimo, and I pop in regularly. They’re calm, friendly, reassuring places, with thoughtful staff who love a chat and are always handy with a recommendation. When I stream the latest triple j Hottest 100 collection as opposed to buying it on a CD, I don’t get to chat to somebody and wander around a space where I feel a connection with the ABC family of programs that I grew up with, and that’s a pity.

The whole thing’s a pity, of course, especially for those who will be losing their jobs. But sadly, they’re our ABC Shops, and we’ve already voted with our wallets.

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