The first department stores
Department stores developed in Great Britain, France and America during the mid-19th century. These ‘cathedrals of consumption’ were large, multi-storeyed retail establishments, situated in the central business districts of cities and provincial towns. Stores displayed a wide range of merchandise, including the latest fashions and household goods, in comfortable, often luxurious, settings. They offered customers an enjoyable shopping experience and allowed them to browse without having to buy.
Separate departments were supervised by individual managers and buyers, while functions such as advertising, accounting and delivery were centralised.
Early New Zealand stores
New Zealand’s department stores mostly grew from small drapery shops in the second half of the 19th century. They met the need for clothing, footwear and household goods in the new settler communities.
Many of these stores were begun by women. In 1849 Mrs Bain, a widow, opened a Dunedin drapery which was later known as Brown, Ewing. In 1850 Mary and Ellen Taylor founded a Wellington drapery, which after changes of address and ownership became the department store James Smith’s.
In 1867 Mary Jane and Charlotte Milne started the Auckland millinery and drapery shop that later became Milne & Choyce. In 1880 Marianne Smith opened the drapery that would become Smith & Caughey. She was joined by her husband William Smith after one year and her brother, Andrew Caughey, after two.
When newly-arrived drapery assistant John Kirkcaldie got a job in a Sydney store in 1861, he recognised one of his colleagues – Robert Stains, who had worked for a rival shop in London. Determined to have their own business, they joined forces and sailed to Wellington on the advice of a colleague who had set up shop in Nelson. Kirkcaldie & Stains opened in 1863; in 2009 it was New Zealand’s oldest department store trading under its original name.
Family businesses and partnerships
H. & J. Smith in Invercargill, Hay’s in Christchurch and Milne & Choyce in Auckland began as family businesses. Others, including Kirkcaldie & Stains in Wellington, Collinson and Cunninghame in Palmerston North, and Brown, Ewing in Dunedin, resulted from partnerships between people with previous experience in the drapery trade.
Hallensteins and Farmers
In 1873 Bendix Hallenstein and his brothers established a clothing factory (which later supplied the Hallensteins chain of menswear stores). He opened their wholesale warehouse as the Drapery Importing Company (DIC) in Dunedin in 1884, later setting up branches in other cities.
The Farmers’ Trading Company in Auckland had its genesis as Laidlaw Leeds, a mail-order firm whose customers were largely farmers, and which turned its warehouse building into a department store in 1920. It developed into a major New Zealand department store chain, which was still running in 2009.
Customers having afternoon tea in Kirkcaldie & Stains’s newly opened and highly fashionable tearoom one Thursday in 1898 witnessed the store’s most dramatic moment. A woman stood up, drew a revolver from under her cloak and shot the manageress at point-blank range. Ellen Dick was saved by her corset, as the bullets glanced off its whalebone. Her assailant, Annie McWilliam, spent seven years in jail. Their long-running wrangle over a hotel on the West Coast had already resulted in a lawsuit.
Most of the goods stocked by early New Zealand department stores were imported. Store managers and buyers often travelled, mainly to Britain, to order merchandise directly.
The stores also appointed buyers and firms in overseas cities to purchase on their behalf. In 1923 John Court had buying offices in London, New York and Yokohama, Japan. Stores could buy fashion garments from the northern hemisphere at an end-of-season sale price, to sell when the season opened in New Zealand. Department stores also set up large workrooms making garments to supplement their imported stock.