The corner dairy
In New Zealand a small mixed grocery shop is known as a dairy. Many are on street corners, so they are often referred to as the ‘corner dairy’.
From the early 1900s small shops called ‘dairy produce sellers’ sold milk, cream, cheese, butter and eggs. They were the only shops allowed to sell these products and were also allowed to open on Sundays. During the depression of the 1930s many people built a room onto the front of their houses – or converted an existing room – and set up a shop selling a few grocery items, confectionery or other easily handled goods.
The term ‘dairy’ only became commonly applied to small grocery shops from the late 1930s. Before then a small shop selling groceries would have been called a ‘cash grocer’.
In 1945 a law was passed that put an end to most grocers opening on Saturdays. Dairies, however, were allowed to be open outside of normal trading hours (on Saturdays and in the evenings). They also expanded their range of goods – although there was a list of goods they were legally allowed to sell outside normal trading hours.
‘I’m quitting next year’
Dairy owners typically work 90–100 hours each week. Working such long hours leaves the shopkeeper little time to spend money, so saving becomes almost compulsory. It can be a difficult lifestyle, with little time for socialising or going on holidays. A study of a group of dairies in Onehunga, Auckland, in the late 1970s found that none of the 14 dairy owners felt they could do it for more than two to three years.
The dairy business
A dairy is an easy business to enter, as it does not require a great deal of capital. This ease of entry also means that it is easy for competitors to set up. New supermarkets opening in the vicinity can easily put dairies out of business.
Dairies are not especially profitable and, contrary to common belief, do not solely make their money by huge mark-ups. As small operators, they cannot get huge discounts on bulk purchases the way that supermarkets do.
Dairies make money by being open long hours – from early morning to late evening, seven days a week. Owners typically work 13–14 hours a day. As the shop must always be open to make money, dairies are almost always family-run businesses that utilise family members to mind the shop.
A 1994 study found that 227 of the 269 dairies in central and suburban Auckland were owned by Indians. The New Zealand tradition of the Indian dairy is the backdrop to Jacob Rajan’s award-winning play of 1997, Krishnan’s dairy. A famous Indian love story is interwoven with insights into the life of Indian immigrants in New Zealand.
Running dairies has been popular with immigrant groups who often faced difficulties entering the general workforce. Many dairy owners were doing the job so that their children could receive an education and get white-collar or professional occupations. Some dairies were intergenerational, with the children who worked in the store taking it over when they grew up.
Over the 1990s and 2000s dairies became less profitable as supermarkets opened for longer hours and petrol stations extended the range of goods they sold. In the 2000s a large percentage of the profits of dairies came from alcohol sales. The key competitive advantage of the dairy owner – that they were the only nearby shop open – was disappearing.