General stores were more prevalent in small country towns or parts of cities not well served by public transport. They stocked anything and everything a customer might need, from hat pins to cooking ranges. Before 1900 any reputable firm could also apply for a licence to sell alcohol. Many general stores had a grocer’s licence, which allowed them to sell any quantity of liquor as long as it was drunk off the premises.
General stores were kept afloat by customer loyalty and the population’s lack of mobility. Many also offered home delivery services. From the 1960s, as car ownership rose, people could just hop in their car and drive to pick something up. Increasingly they did weekly shopping at supermarkets and larger stores. General stores could not compete on price and most went out of business. In the 2000s, the needs of the customer who just wants a newspaper, a loaf of bread or some milk are met by dairies (corner stores) and petrol stations.
Cities were large enough to allow the development of retailers such as florists, drapers, clothiers, milliners, footwear stores and hardware merchants. Other specialists catered for recreational pursuits – sports shops, record shops and music shops. In small towns there was not enough demand to support these kinds of stores.
Rogers the Taurus?
Booksellers got some unusual requests. An Invercargill store owner remembered one customer asking, ‘Have you got a Rogers the Taurus – it’s a book to look up words in?’1 He meant, presumably, Roget’s thesaurus.
In the early colonial days there was a demand for reading material. New Zealanders were a literate people, and bookshops emerged even in small towns. By the late 1800s larger bookselling firms such as Whitcombe and Tombs, which had started in Christchurch, began to buy up other bookstores. In the first half of the 20th century they grew into a large chain of stores, and a smaller chain, London Bookshops, was established. There were also small independent bookshops, and from the 1960s specialist bookshops emerged. These were run by book-lovers and served readers with more diverse interests.
In the early 1970s there were 360 bookshops in New Zealand – many were stationers and newsagents or general stores that also sold books. Most were small. In the 2000s the bookselling scene was dominated by chains – Whitcoulls (formerly Whitcombe and Tombs), Paper Plus, Borders (bought by Whitcoulls in 2008), and Dymocks.
In an era when most people smoked, a small store could survive by selling tobacco, cigarettes, pipes, pipe cleaners, lighters, matches and other smoking paraphernalia. Often these businesses also offered hairdressing services and sold razors, shaving cream and hair-care products. This is an example of ‘upselling’ – the barber already had a willing customer, and could often convince them to buy products while in the shop. Other small shop owners combined the roles of newsagent and tobacconist.
Many early jewellers in New Zealand were also watchmakers, selling and repairing watches as a major part of their business. Some, such as Auckland’s James Pascoe, survived lean times by doing repair work (mainly watches) for other jewellers until the sales side of his business picked up. Jewellery was high on the list of luxury goods for many people as cities grew and incomes rose in the early 1900s. A fine watch was a huge status symbol, and even small, isolated towns such as Arrowtown and Naseby in Central Otago had their own watchmakers and jewellers.
Chain jewellery stores such as Pascoes lost customers as malls opened in the early 1970s. Street stores were becoming quieter as shopping shifted to malls in the suburbs. Pascoes and other firms met this challenge by opening shop branches in these malls.