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.
Württemberg not Germany
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 shoppers’ experience
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.