Threats to department stores
The 1930s economic depression and the rise of chain and speciality stores affected department stores worldwide. Other factors threatened the stores’ supremacy in New Zealand. From 1938, the Labour government imposed import restrictions to regulate New Zealand’s overseas spending and encourage local industries. Department stores’ allocations of import licences were drastically reduced, so they could no longer access such a wide variety of goods from overseas. Price controls were also imposed, which limited profits.
The Second World War limited the goods that department stores had access to. Clothing and household linen were rationed, and elastic, silk stockings and cotton goods were virtually unobtainable. Shortages of materials and workers restricted repairs to and maintenance of older buildings. In this climate of austerity, the stores found it hard to maintain their position as ‘cathedrals of consumption’.
Suburban versus city stores
Department stores were located in city centres, but from the 1950s city centres came to be seen as ageing and overcrowded, in contrast to modern, calm, spacious suburbia. The spreading subdivisions built after the Second World War were beyond easy reach of the city centre, making department stores less readily accessible for many.
By the 1950s New Zealand was behind only the United States in the number of motor vehicles per head of population. As car ownership increased, traffic congestion and a shortage of parking discouraged central-city shoppers.
In the 1960s many department stores were in decline. They faced increasing challenges, including rises in rates and wages, and the need to renovate their old buildings. Stores found it difficult to maintain varied merchandise and to compete with other shops for customers.
By the 1960s and 1970s young New Zealanders wanted to spend their money in new speciality shops and boutiques rather than in department stores, which they saw as old-fashioned. And the attractions that stores had offered earlier generations of children could not compete with more sophisticated entertainments, such as television.
Immigrants from Europe, and New Zealanders who had travelled overseas, introduced fresh ideas about dining out. People were no longer content with the traditional tearoom menu of roasts and casseroles. These were old-fashioned compared with the new restaurants and intimate coffee bars that opened in cities.
The great tearooms gradually emptied. Many stores leased or reallocated the enormous spaces and set up smaller coffee bars.
Former stores flourish
The grand buildings of former department stores have been redeveloped for other uses. Miller’s in Christchurch has accommodated offices for the city council. C. M. Ross’s Palmerston North store became a lively public library, after a re-design by architect Ian Athfield. In Auckland, Farmers’ flagship Hobson Street store became a hotel. Other stores were converted into apartments or retail and office buildings.
By the early 1990s, in the economic recession after the 1987 stockmarket crash, most of New Zealand’s department stores had closed their doors. By 2006, when Arthur Barnett’s finally closed its Christchurch store, there was a clear decrease in city-centre customers, in the face of megastores and suburban malls.
In the early 2000s, iconic department stores remained in each of the main centres – Smith & Caughey in Auckland, Kirkcaldie & Stains in Wellington, Ballantynes in Christchurch and Arthur Barnett’s in Dunedin. Others included H. & J. Smith’s in Invercargill and Blackwell’s of Kaiapoi. There were also Farmers chain stores in centres around the country. These remaining stores demonstrated adaptability and a readiness to meet the challenges of modern retailing. In targeting and serving their particular client base, each maintained its own distinctive style.
Stephen Tindall opened the first of the Warehouse’s massive discount stores in Takapuna, Auckland, in 1982. A great-grandson of Auckland department store founder George Court, Tindall had worked in the family business.
The Warehouse had some characteristics of department stores – including the variety of goods and their separation into departments. But its image as a discount retailer, its utilitarian buildings and the absence of services, luxury goods and stylish display differentiated it from department stores – as did its location, usually outside city centres. The Warehouse was often also located in shopping malls, as was Farmers.