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).
Depression, war and import licensing
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.