New Zealand’s first shops were trading posts. From the 1830s traders sold goods to whalers through outposts at places like Kororāreka (later called Russell) in the Bay of Islands. They sold ‘American tobacco, Irish butter, English cheeses and ales, Jamaican rum, salt from Liverpool, sugar from Mauritius, calico and cloth by the yard, cross cut saws, spades, tents, tea, rice, blankets, cutlery, flour, soap, ironmongery, even two- and six-roomed homes’.1 General stores were prominent in European settlements, often offering credit for residents. Māori were keen traders, although few set themselves up as shopkeepers.
Retail activity arose in Auckland around 1841, centred on Commercial Bay (today the bottom of Queen Street). Wooden shops with tin roofs soon lined the bay and crept up neighbouring Shortland Street. By 1842 the settlement’s population was 3,000, and one in three shops was a liquor outlet.
In Wellington the first store opened at Petone within days of the first settlers landing in 1840. Owned by George Hunter, it supplied goods to new arrivals. In late 1840 and 1841 Thorndon and Te Aro became the main settlement areas. Shops – physically just crude buildings – lined Lambton Beach (now Lambton Quay), which joined the two areas. Similar patterns occurred elsewhere: wherever settlements arose there were soon shops – or at least a general store.
Almost nothing apart from raw materials were produced in New Zealand, so there was a considerable demand for imports. As the population rose between 1840 and 1880, so did this demand. The total value of imported goods such as clothing, sugar, tea and spirits outstripped exports of commodities.
In the larger towns, specialist shops emerged. Small shops selling general produce boomed. By 1891 there were over 1,100 bakers and confectioners in the colony. In the late 1800s, shoppers in Auckland or Dunedin could buy many of the same products sold in London. Drapery was especially profitable, with huge demand for clothing.
Household incomes increased significantly from the late 1880s, more than doubling by 1914. This increase in purchasing power was especially evident among the lower middle classes. Wives of small-business owners found they had money left over after buying essential groceries. From the 1880s to the 1900s this allowed the rise of shops selling a wider range of goods – many of them luxury items. Advertising became increasingly important as retailers competed for the discretionary income of the emerging middle class.
In his later years jeweller James Pascoe had a favourite anecdote about his first shop, which was in Ponsonby – much quieter than the nearby shopping strip of Karangahape Road. Takings from his first Christmas Eve’s trading amounted to one sale – a tiepin which sold for two and sixpence ($17.16 in 2008 terms), yielding a grand profit of ninepence ($5.72 in 2008).
Retailers flourished until the economic depression of the 1930s, which hit hard. To stay afloat many owners had to lay off staff, cut profit margins and not draw any salary. Then in 1938, due to increasing overseas debt, the Labour government introduced import licensing. Importers had to have a licence, and quantities of imports were limited. Retailers who relied on imports bought through wholesalers or directly from overseas were accustomed to unfettered access to goods. They now had to often source goods from within New Zealand, reducing the range of items available.
The Second World War also saw many retailers struggle to source overseas products due to shortages, and losses of stock from ships sunk at sea. Retailing boomed once more in the 1950s and 1960s. This was the heyday of small shops and department stores in the central city.
Successful small shops grew into department stores and chain stores. Competing with these larger stores was difficult for small shopkeepers, unless they had a point of difference such as another line of goods.
Chain stores – which have branches in different towns – emerged in Britain in the 1850s, and by the 1870s men’s clothing and grocery chains had become established. Chain stores soon spread to other types of retailing.
International and local chain stores operated in New Zealand. Among the first local chain stores was Hallensteins.
Jewish immigrant Bendix Hallenstein opened a general store in Invercargill in 1863 before moving to Queenstown. Soon he had branches in Arrowtown, Lawrence and Cromwell. Next he opened a clothing factory and menswear stores in many centres. By 1900 he had 36 branches throughout the country. His business model was high turnover with small margins (small profits on each sale). By doing this he could sell his clothes more cheaply than competitors who owned just one shop. Economies of scale (as production increases, the cost per unit produced decreases) were also important. This method of making money was also employed by department stores – which had the added inducement of everything under one roof.
Christchurch booksellers Whitcombe and Tombs followed in the chain store path. First set up in 1882, they bought a Wellington store in 1894. They had also opened a London office to purchase books. A Melbourne office opened in 1903. They entered the Auckland market in 1916, and built a printing works. Soon they also had branches in Invercargill, Timaru, Lower Hutt, Hamilton and Hastings, with printing facilities in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
Bicycle manufacturer Robert Murie started making his own Phoenix brand bikes in 1893, and soon had seven stores throughout Otago and Southland. The Auckland-based firm Reynolds began making and selling bikes in 1895, and went on to open shops in Wellington, New Plymouth and Palmerston North. The Zealandia Cycle Works had branches in Napier and Ashburton and a shop and factory in Christchurch.
An example of an overseas chain store is the Singer Manufacturing Company, which sold sewing machines in a number of countries. It opened its first New Zealand store in 1883, and by 1906 had 14 New Zealand stores.
Chain stores that produce their own goods are examples of vertical integration. By controlling the supply of goods, shop owners are less subject to delays and can also control quality. Chain stores – shops selling the same products in different markets – are also examples of horizontal integration.
Chain-store brands were recognisable throughout the country, which made advertising more profitable as consumers in different suburbs and cities knew the brand. Chain stores also saved money by centralising management, and if they produced their own goods they had even more control over their business.
At first, shopping in country towns was dominated by general stores, which offered goods on credit to local farmers. Travel was difficult, so rural people needed to buy their goods locally. Stock and station agents expanded their ranges and many goods were offered through mail-order catalogues. Department stores such as the Farmers’ Trading Company seized this opportunity by also selling goods through mail order (the postal system was very efficient).
From the early 1900s many of Wellington’s small shops were owned by Greek families. These businesses reached their peak in the late 1950s when there were some 70 Greek-owned shops in downtown Wellington.
After the First World War, as city suburbs grew and public transport improved, suburban shopping developed. These village-type rows of shops centred on a main road, usually along a bus or tram route. There was typically a grocer, butcher, greengrocer, pharmacy, hairdresser, baker, stationer/newsagent and post office. Larger rows might also include a real estate agent, draper, jeweller, confectioner, hardware store, service station, and one or more banks. In Auckland, suburbs such as Mt Eden, Mt Roskill, Point Chevalier and Mt Albert were typical examples.
The city centre was the place to go for more variety – it had specialised small shops and large emporiums, chain stores and department stores.
From the 1960s, car ownership grew steeply. Cities spread as suburbs grew outwards. From the late 1960s shopping malls were built, especially in the more spread-out cities – Auckland and Christchurch – to serve customers who went shopping by car. Central Wellington and Dunedin were more compact, and did not see the same rise in large malls in outlying suburbs.
Increasingly people drove to do their shopping. Malls offered ample free parking and often had an adjacent supermarket. They drew customers away from city centres.
Malls reduced the need for a trip to the city centre. Small general shops and department stores suffered the most. Some chain stores opened new shops in malls, and some small specialty stores survived by selling luxury fashion items. Department stores and chain stores were often locked into contracts with suppliers and expensive inner-city leases. In Auckland the glamour shopping destinations of Queen Street and Karangahape Road suffered, as did shops in Christchurch’s city centre.
Many big department stores and small shops closed in the 1980s. City centres still retained their shopping areas – although they were often less busy. Customers changed from incoming suburban shoppers to office workers and tourists. To lure the suburban shopper a city-centre store needed a point of difference, such as niche products, or extra services like repairs. Small shops could also be nimble and change their stock quickly to capitalise on changing fashions – one advantage over chain and department stores.
The storekeeper’s life was one of long hours and, at slack times, interminable boredom. Different stores had different business plans. Some made money by selling a limited range of luxury goods at large markups. Just a few sales an hour could keep things ticking over. Others relied on selling large volumes of goods at small markups. Whatever their style of retailing, all took risks when ordering or manufacturing goods. If they had too much stock, not all might sell; if they had too little they risked running out and missing potential sales.
Store owners also had to move shops to where the foot traffic was, and adapt to changing fashions and transport. Retailing, while risky, could be very lucrative if the storekeeper tapped into the public’s tastes.
Many shops were run as family businesses. The names of many successful retail businesses, like Pascoes the jeweller, Hallensteins the clothier and Hannahs the shoemaker, are family names. Children of shopkeepers often worked in the store when old enough, and some later took over the business. Shopkeeping has been – and still is – one of the easiest ways of starting your own business.
The first shops were wooden buildings that resembled houses. Next came more ornate Italianate designs. From the 1860s many were plastered brick. Most shop buildings were not more than two or three storeys. Many had verandahs over the footpath to shelter shoppers looking in windows. Often buildings had shops on the ground floor, with offices, factories or service areas in upstairs rooms. Advertising signs often featured on panels above the verandahs facing the street. Typically shops lined streets with intricate façades, behind which the buildings were very plain. Side and back streets provided access for delivering goods.
An Otago watch seller had trouble with a sale to an old bullock driver in the 1940s:
‘On entering he at once clapped his eyes on some alarm clocks on display. “Just the very thing I want – a good alarm clock … Wrap me up one,” he said. I had it about ready to hand over when he very suddenly remembered there was a war on. “Hold on, Jimmy … Take it away, the blimey thing is made in Germany. I wouldn’t have it on my mind at any price.” … I unwrapped it, and on holding it up to him remarked: “Look, can’t you read. It is printed on the dial, Made in Wurttemberg.” “Oh, that will do me fine. Wrap it up again,” he said.’1 (Württemberg is, in fact, an area in south-west Germany.)
The image of the sociable small shopkeeper who knew many of his customers by their first name was more apt in small towns. However, even in cities there was some truth to this before the rise of the car, and for shops that customers visited regularly, such as general stores.
Shopping was a major event, especially for housewives – they dressed up to go to town. Before self-service became common, produce was mostly behind the counter, and shoppers queued to be served, chatting with other customers. They asked the shopkeeper for advice and recommendations. Purchased items were wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. In the late 1800s and early 1900s grocery shopping was a very sociable experience, and one that had to be done regularly in the days before refrigeration. Shopkeepers were often experts in their areas and a source of invaluable advice as well as goods.
In cities such as Christchurch, trams headed into the city centre packed full of suburban shoppers, going mainly to large department stores, but also to strips of shops. Small inner-city shops like Mrs. Pope’s (haberdashery and wool), Minson’s (glass and china) and the Queen Anne chocolate shop and milk bar were three fondly remembered examples.
From the 1910s to the 1970s Friday night in town was an important event, with most people coming in from the suburbs by public transport well into the 1950s. Female mid-week shoppers often combined their excursion with afternoon tea in the tearooms of a major department store.
From the 1890s unions were set up for shop workers. Although unions served different groups of shop workers, their concerns were very similar – mainly the long hours worked. In 1936 in Wellington three unions amalgamated to form the Wellington Amalgamated Society of Shop Assistants. Amalgamation of unions gave workers more bargaining power.
In summer in the late 1800s shopkeepers and shop staff worked up to 14 hours a day – or until it got dark, whichever came first. Opening hours were the focus of intense scrutiny. The public wanted shops open whenever they wanted something, but shop workers also wanted to go home at the end of the day. As early as 1850 shopkeepers agreed to close their shops at 7 p.m. in winter (1 April to 1 October, except Saturdays, which had late-night shopping). Shops were closed on Sundays.
In the 1870s a newspaper columnist noted that shop assistants had it hard working from morning to late at night on Saturdays: ‘Fagged and spiritless, is it a wonder the exhausted assistant, at eleven or twelve o'clock on Saturday night, flees to the first hotel to brace his dulled energies …? Is it a wonder he stays longer than he should when he feels his body recover its elasticity and his mind its cheerfulness …? Is it a wonder that when he wakens on Sunday, with the excitement gone, and in its place reaction and an aching head, he prefers a lounge in his room to God's sunshine?’1
An ‘early closing association’ was formed in Auckland in 1856, and another in Whanganui 10 years later. In 1872 Wellington butchers went on strike to get a 10-hour day. The Wellington Drapers' and Clothiers' Early Closing Association, which formed in 1876, lobbied for 6 p.m. closing and half-day closure on Wednesdays.
In November 1885 Christchurch shop staff had a victory – shops were to close for a half-day on Thursday. This practice spread to other cities, with a half-day off on a Wednesday or Thursday – although shop assistants still had to work on Saturdays. Many worked 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday to Friday, with a mid-week half-day, and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays.
In 1936 the Labour government limited Saturday retail trading to a half-day. This freed up many young people (especially women, who dominated shop-assistant positions) to participate in Saturday-afternoon sports and other activities.
In 1945 a law was passed that put an end to Saturday shopping altogether. Trading was limited to Monday to Friday, with one late night – usually Thursday or Friday. One of the reasons was to provide time for a family weekend. From then until 1980, when Saturday trading was partly legalised, New Zealand’s main shopping streets were deserted at weekends, perplexing many overseas visitors when they found the country ‘closed’.
Shops in selected places – for instance New Brighton in Christchurch, Paraparaumu near Wellington, and tourist towns like Queenstown – could open on Saturdays. Other than this, only certain types of shop were allowed to trade, and they could only sell certain types of goods. This had some bizarre outcomes – in dairies (corner stores) at the weekend, customers could buy tinned spaghetti but not uncooked spaghetti. On Saturday mornings at timber yards they could buy wood – but not nails, screws or hinges. Trading hours continued to expand over the 1980s, and in 1989 Sunday trading was allowed.
Shop trading hours have largely been deregulated, although in the 2000s most shops were still required to close for two-and-a-half days each year:
From 2016 territorial authorities decided whether shops in their districts could open on Easter Sunday.
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.
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.
Drapers and haberdashers supplied the population with cloth and fabric. But they also sold much more – millinery or hats (worn by all in the early 1900s), hosiery, gloves and manchester (cotton sheets and towels, mostly produced in the English city of Manchester). A draper sold fabrics and sewing equipment. Silk mercers sold textiles, mainly silk. Haberdashers were specialists in sewing materials such as tapes, threads, lace, trimmings and buttons.
It was a time when many women made their own clothes or employed dressmakers to sew for them. Shop owners made regular buying trips to London where they would look for new products and organise deals with suppliers.
Some of New Zealand’s first shops were pharmacies, which sold drugs, raw materials for folk cures, and patent medicines. C. D. Barraud’s shop in Te Aro was one of the first in Wellington. In the 1840s part of the shop was known as ‘The Pill Box’ – it had an octagonal shape and was a dispensary. Pharmacies also operated in Dunedin, Christchurch and Auckland from the late 1840s and early 1850s. They sold other things such as paint, spices and stationery, and were essentially general stores-cum-pharmacies.
Patent medicines had to be imported and sold at low profit margins, so pharmacists preferred to make remedies themselves, which were often advertised as ‘our own formula’. Some pharmacists also worked as vets, dentists or opticians. From around 1900, when film photography became affordable, pharmacists sold film and developed photographs.
From the 1860s pharmacies improved their appearance, with imported fittings, carboys (large glass bottles), mirrors and mahogany fittings. Pharmacies largely looked like this until the 1930s when competition from grocers and department stores spelled the end of mahogany fittings and stock hidden in drawers, cupboards and back rooms. Pharmacies moved to open shelves and display stands. Open dispensaries were also introduced so customers could see the white-coated pharmacist make up the order. Many of these retailing approaches would be adopted by other shops in the decades to come.
‘Lolly shops’ was slang for brothels in the early 1900s. Sex shops and tattoo shops were first established in lanes in rougher areas of cities – often near the wharves. In the 2000s they are found on main streets.
Confectioners sold sweets (lollies). They were often close to cinemas and did especially well prior to screenings and at intervals. Once refrigeration was introduced, ice cream was a major seller. Confectioners had long counters with many glass jars and compartments displaying the array of sweets – many of which were made on the premises. Near the cash register was a set of scales for weighing the goods.
In the 2000s retailing is dominated by companies that have chain stores in the main cities and regional towns, located in large malls and city centres. There is a developing consumer resistance to the sameness of malls, and some malls now feature boutique shops.
From the 1990s, huge megastores such as The Warehouse and large hardware retailers, often offering discounted prices, have also become common.
Small shop owners can exploit the same opportunities as ever – meeting the demands of specialist and luxury consumers. Many independent small shops find it difficult to pay high rents in the central city, and are forced into areas with less foot traffic and probably less custom. Dairies (convenience stores) are found in suburban areas, often on street corners. They sell everyday foodstuffs, and charge high margins. People are willing to pay as the shop is easily accessible.
The New Zealand Retailers' Federation was set up in 1921, and in 2008 was called the New Zealand Retailers Association. It represents the interests of retailers and lobbies government on issues affecting shop owners. Since 1989 it has run an annual ‘Top Shop’ competition focusing on retailing excellence.
In the 2000s the internet has made price comparisons easy for shoppers, and online mail-order ‘stores’ compete with more traditional shops.
Parallel importers can also undercut traditional retailers by importing the same goods as sold by authorised agents for particular brands, often selling them more cheaply. Shops must match prices to attract custom or compete on criteria other than price, such as after-sales service and advice to customers.
Many small shops still survive by carving out a specialty service selling unusual or hard-to-find products. For example Unity Books in Wellington and Auckland offers rarer, less popular titles than the large chain-store booksellers.
Most city councils recognise through their policies that it is desirable to have a vibrant city centre that people live in and use. Small shops are a vital component of inner-city life. Under the Resource Management Act 1991, councils cannot cite economic competition with small shops as a reason for preventing developments such as large malls or megastores – but they can oppose development on the basis that small shops are integral to a city or town’s social appeal.
Retailers’ associations and city councils have also tried to reinvigorate city-centre shopping through closing some roads and turning them into pedestrian malls. Asphalt pavements have been widened and re-laid in bricks. During the late 1990s and 2000s many apartments have been built in downtown Auckland and Wellington, and more people are living in city centres.
In the 2000s retailing remains a cut-throat business, yet it seems there is always a place for the small-shop owner who exploits niches that are overlooked by the large chain stores and megastores.
Blades, Zisis Bruce. Wellington’s Hellenic mile: the Greek shops of twentieth century Wellington. Wellington: Z. B. Blades, 2005.
Chao, Sally. Where fashion sold for less: the story of Whitehead & Pears, drapers and milliners Cuba Street, Wellington, New Zealand, 1908–1977. Auckland: S. Chao, 2005.
Hince, Kevin, and others. Opening hours: history of the Wellington Shop Employees Union. Wellington: Central Distribution Workers Union, Industrial Relations Centre, Victoria University, 1990.
Hunter, Ian, and Diana Morrow, eds. City of enterprise: perspectives on Auckland business history. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2006.
Rogers, Anna, and Max Rogers. Turning the pages: the story of bookselling in New Zealand. Auckland: Reed, 1993.