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Department stores and shopping malls

by Helen Laurenson

With elegant window displays, expansive tearooms, beauty salons, fashion parades and Christmas extravaganzas, department stores made shopping fun. These multi-storeyed ‘cathedrals of consumption’ developed in the later 19th century. Shopping malls have largely taken their place.

The rise of department stores

The first department stores

Department stores developed in Great Britain, France and America during the mid-19th century. These ‘cathedrals of consumption’ were large, multi-storeyed retail establishments, situated in the central business districts of cities and provincial towns. Stores displayed a wide range of merchandise, including the latest fashions and household goods, in comfortable, often luxurious, settings. They offered customers an enjoyable shopping experience and allowed them to browse without having to buy.

Separate departments were supervised by individual managers and buyers, while functions such as advertising, accounting and delivery were centralised.

Early New Zealand stores

New Zealand’s department stores mostly grew from small drapery shops in the second half of the 19th century. They met the need for clothing, footwear and household goods in the new settler communities.

Women owners

Many of these stores were begun by women. In 1849 Mrs Bain, a widow, opened a Dunedin drapery which was later known as Brown, Ewing. In 1850 Mary and Ellen Taylor founded a Wellington drapery, which after changes of address and ownership became the department store James Smith’s.

In 1867 Mary Jane and Charlotte Milne started the Auckland millinery and drapery shop that later became Milne & Choyce. In 1880 Marianne Smith opened the drapery that would become Smith & Caughey. She was joined by her husband William Smith after one year and her brother, Andrew Caughey, after two.

Entrepreneurial assistants


When newly-arrived drapery assistant John Kirkcaldie got a job in a Sydney store in 1861, he recognised one of his colleagues – Robert Stains, who had worked for a rival shop in London. Determined to have their own business, they joined forces and sailed to Wellington on the advice of a colleague who had set up shop in Nelson. Kirkcaldie & Stains opened in 1863; in 2009 it was New Zealand’s oldest department store trading under its original name.


Family businesses and partnerships

H. & J. Smith in Invercargill, Hay’s in Christchurch and Milne & Choyce in Auckland began as family businesses. Others, including Kirkcaldie & Stains in Wellington, Collinson and Cunninghame in Palmerston North, and Brown, Ewing in Dunedin, resulted from partnerships between people with previous experience in the drapery trade.

Hallensteins and Farmers

In 1873 Bendix Hallenstein and his brothers established a clothing factory (which later supplied the Hallensteins chain of menswear stores). He opened their wholesale warehouse as the Drapery Importing Company (DIC) in Dunedin in 1884, later setting up branches in other cities.

The Farmers’ Trading Company in Auckland had its genesis as Laidlaw Leeds, a mail-order firm whose customers were largely farmers, and which turned its warehouse building into a department store in 1920. It developed into a major New Zealand department store chain, which was still running in 2009.

Tearoom shooting


Customers having afternoon tea in Kirkcaldie & Stains’s newly opened and highly fashionable tearoom one Thursday in 1898 witnessed the store’s most dramatic moment. A woman stood up, drew a revolver from under her cloak and shot the manageress at point-blank range. Ellen Dick was saved by her corset, as the bullets glanced off its whalebone. Her assailant, Annie McWilliam, spent seven years in jail. Their long-running wrangle over a hotel on the West Coast had already resulted in a lawsuit.


Sourcing merchandise

Most of the goods stocked by early New Zealand department stores were imported. Store managers and buyers often travelled, mainly to Britain, to order merchandise directly.

The stores also appointed buyers and firms in overseas cities to purchase on their behalf. In 1923 John Court had buying offices in London, New York and Yokohama, Japan. Stores could buy fashion garments from the northern hemisphere at an end-of-season sale price, to sell when the season opened in New Zealand. Department stores also set up large workrooms making garments to supplement their imported stock.

The heyday of department stores

Department stores were at their prime in the first half of the 20th century.


Successful New Zealand department stores occupied large landmark buildings in prime commercial locations. In the early 20th century, many enlarged their premises, acquiring adjacent property or adding extra floors to existing buildings.

Stores were designed to impress, with a glamorous atmosphere. Extensive window displays presented goods with artistry. They served as advertisements for the store’s style as well as an invitation to enter.


The ground floor was designed to be lively and vibrant. It usually included a menswear department. Lifts or escalators took customers to the upper floors for departments such as napery (table linen), manchester (sheets and towels), millinery (hats), and the mantle showroom (coats).


Stores prided themselves on sourcing merchandise from around the world – including cosmetics, jewellery, clothing, accessories, fabrics, sewing material and equipment, household linen, china, furniture and toys. Some stores – particularly those in smaller towns, such as Blackwell’s of Kaiapoi – also stocked hardware, produce and food. Stores often had dressmakers and other departments making goods on the premises.


Department stores offered many services to their customers. They provided restrooms (toilets) for women, and often had beauty salons and barbers’ shops.

Tearooms were usually on the top floor, and offered good, reasonably priced food in spacious, elegant surroundings. They were unprofitable, but attracted thousands of customers, and hosted events such as fashion parades, bridge parties and wedding receptions.

Elephants and Mother Goose


When a circus came to Christchurch in 1933, Hay’s department store hired its elephant to advertise a sale. Hay’s, with its slogan ‘the friendly store’, was renowned for innovative window displays and promotions. It had a rooftop playground, complete with ‘Aunt Hays’ (Edna Neville) organising children’s activities. In 1948 the store began annual Christmas parades featuring nursery-rhyme characters.


Appealing to children

Stores usually had big toy departments. Some, including Farmers in Auckland and Hay’s in Christchurch, also had rooftop children’s playgrounds.

Imaginative, carefully planned holiday highlights were an important feature of most stores. Waxworks, circuses and Pixietowns – displays of animated mechanical pixies – attracted future customers and their parents.

Father Christmas appeared in the DIC in Wellington in 1894 – his first advertised appearance in a New Zealand department store. By the 1930s he was a feature at many stores, accompanied by a colourful band of attendants.

Class-conscious shopping


There was a class hierarchy of department stores. In Christchurch, this ranged from Ballantynes at the top to Hay’s at the bottom, with Beath’s in the middle. One customer, looking back on mid-20th century Auckland stores, commented that she would have shopped at Milne & Choyce or Smith & Caughey, but never at John Court’s. Presumably she would have ruled out George Court’s, Farmers and Rendells, which were even further down the scale.



Retaining customer loyalty, attracting new shoppers and maintaining the individual style of a store was essential for success. There was a social hierarchy among department stores. Some people had an account at a particular store and only shopped there, but most shoppers enjoyed the variety of goods and services offered by different stores.


End-of-season sales, when stock was cleared at reduced prices, were a huge attraction with crowds queuing from early in the morning. The Auckland branch of Farmers held a birthday sale in honour of Hector, the store’s parrot, each October.

Rural customers planned city visits to coincide with sales. They often made the department store their base of operation on trips to town, and valued the convenience of accounts and mail-order services.

Fire, fire!


When fire broke out in the basement of Christchurch’s Ballantynes department store in 1947, staff demonstrated their loyalty and obedience to the management – at the cost of their lives. Some women staff were told by supervisors not to leave, and office workers stayed to shut up equipment and could not use the fire escapes because of heat and smoke. Seven milliners (hat makers) were among the 41 people who died. A royal commission of inquiry criticised management for the unsafe building, and the lack of both emergency procedures and swift action on the day.



Many staff members gave a lifetime of loyal commitment to one firm, although some advanced their careers by moving to other similar establishments. There was the possibility of promotion from junior sales assistant to a department buyer, manager, or floorwalker. Women usually resigned when they married.

Men and women followed rules of dress and conduct prescribed in the staff manual. A spirit of camaraderie was fostered by in-house social activities and sporting competitions against teams from other businesses. Christchurch’s Ballantynes store had a tramping club, as well as basketball, hockey, rugby, cricket, tennis and marching girls’ teams.

Decline and survival

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.

Wartime shortages

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.

Empty tearooms

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.

Surviving stores

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.

The Warehouse

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.

The rise of shopping malls

The decline of department stores was closely related to the advent of shopping malls.

Suburban developments

In suburban areas, small shops were clustered in neighbourhood centres along major roads. Some department stores opened branches at strategic locations in the shopping strips in order to capture suburban customers.

The first pedestrian shopping court in New Zealand was Hillary Court, opened in the state (public) housing development of Naenae, Lower Hutt, in 1954. Austrian architect Ernst Plischke had designed a modern civic and shopping centre for Naenae in 1943. The project was not completed as he had planned, but Hillary Court, with its adjacent parking area, retained some of its elements and functions.

The American model

In the US from the 1950s, Austrian architect Victor Gruen had developed the concept of suburban shopping centres or malls. He saw them as creating a focal point for a variety of community activities, as well as successful retailing. They aimed to re-create an idealised city in microcosm, incorporating walkways and open spaces, surrounded by a unified group of shops. Malls had ample free parking, and usually included several large, anchor establishments (often department stores or supermarkets).

Retail therapy


‘Many housewives find that visits to the new [shopping] centres with one or two friends produce a kind of euphoria,’ an observer noted in 1972. ‘The almost illicit feeling of being actively encouraged to spend, the glossy displays, coffee bars, and the anonymity all encourage a freer attitude to buying. A far cry this from a daily gossip over a pushchair in the butcher’s shop.’1


New Zealand’s first shopping mall

New Zealand department-store management saw American-style shopping malls as the way of the future, offering a solution to the difficulties of reaching consumers in the suburbs. In 1961, two of Auckland’s largest department stores, Farmers and Milne & Choyce, together with the chain-store giant Woolworths, purchased land in suburban New Lynn. Supported financially by the AMP insurance and finance firm, the three companies each set up an anchor store in the new centre. With shops surrounding an open courtyard, and parking for 500 cars, LynnMall, the country’s first shopping mall, opened in October 1963.

Malls in existing streets

Some existing shop-lined streets were closed off to vehicles. Cuba Mall, established in Wellington in 1969, and Queenstown Mall, planned in 1970, were converted streets which remained successful pedestrian malls in the early 2000s. They were a stepping-stone on the way to enclosed shopping malls.

    • Ross Webb, ‘Shopping centres: the impartial critique.’ Auckland Architectural Association Bulletin 43 (February 1972), p. 13. Back

New Zealand’s main malls

Growth in malls

In the 1960s planners in New Zealand became convinced that the modern idea of integrating shopping and services in one major centre was both efficient and attractive. Enthusiasm and investment in mall development increased rapidly, and were supported by the shopping public.

In 1964 the Fletcher Trust and Investment Company began work on the Pakuranga Town Centre. It incorporated two department stores: branches of George Court’s and Farmers.

Other malls followed, including Northlands shopping centre in Christchurch in 1967, and malls in Johnsonville, Wellington, in 1969 and Wainuiomata in 1970.

Fully enclosed malls

Christchurch’s Riccarton mall, built in 1965, was the first fully enclosed shopping centre in New Zealand.

When St Lukes shopping centre in Auckland opened in September 1971, it was the largest covered mall in New Zealand. On opening day more than 100,000 patrons visited its 1.2 hectares of shops and 14 hectares of parking, built on a disused quarry site. The mall extended over two levels, linked by escalators and ramps.

Looking the wrong way


After visiting the Glenfield mall site in 1972, architect Warwick Massey asked, ‘According to what maxim of commercial law does a shopping centre with a view have to turn so resolutely away from it? The Glenfield site looks to the east over a pleasant suburban scene with our beloved Rangitoto [Island] in the background’1 – but there was no view of it from the enclosed mall.


The Glenfield shopping mall, on Auckland’s North Shore, opened in November 1971. It was built on a sloping site with two levels of shops, as well as an aviary containing more than 100 noisy budgerigars. The advantages of covered malls were clear, and some existing open centres were given roofs.

In the late 1970s Manukau City mall was built alongside the civic administration block, with other community services clustered around the new centre. Mall development and redevelopment continued throughout New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s. Cinema multiplexes were often added, together with extra parking.

Westfield malls

Westfield Properties, the world’s largest shopping mall owner and developer in the early 2000s, arrived in New Zealand from Australia in 1999. By 2008 it owned more New Zealand malls than any other company. Other Australian-based companies also dominated the scene.

Sinner or saint?


‘Are malls blights on the urban landscape, cheating us of real shopping variety with their samey blandness, ripping the corner-store heart out of our communities?’ one journalist asked in 2006. ‘Cathedrals to out-of-control consumerism, with its insidious social, economic and environmental toll? Or simply suburbia’s new village square: comfortable, safe places to spend time with friends and family as well as convenient one-stop shops?’2


Sylvia Park and Botany Town Centre

Sylvia Park, New Zealand’s largest mall, opened in Auckland in 2007. With over 200 shops, it was owned by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s Kiwi Income Property Trust, which also owned a number of other malls in 2008.

AMP’s Botany Town Centre in Auckland re-worked the mall concept as a small-scale town with tree-lined streets, gardens and squares. In 2008, it was the second largest retail development in New Zealand.

Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin

In 2008 Wellington had fewer malls than the other main cities, with Westfield Queensgate in Lower Hutt and North City in Porirua being among the largest. Christchurch had Westfield Riccarton, Eastgate, Northlands and The Palms. Arthur Barnett’s, the only remaining iconic department store in Dunedin, anchored the Meridian Mall. The Wall Street mall opened in Dunedin in March 2009.

    • Warwick Massey, ‘Site visit: Glenfield shopping centre.’ Auckland Architectural Association bulletin 46 (May 1972), pp. 5–6. Back
    • Nicola Shepheard, ‘Mall life.’ North & South (June 2006), p. 41. Back

Mall and department store culture

Department stores have been described as expressions of 19th- and 20th-century consumerism. In an era marked by increased leisure time, they offered a new experience of shopping as a pastime.

From the mid-20th century, shopping malls evolved as the new department stores. Like department stores, malls bedazzle with displays of goods, presenting them in stylish settings to encourage consumption. They offer many services and attractions, including food courts and cinemas, and feature special events to attract patrons. Like department stores, they organise spectacular decorations for the Christmas shopping season, with Santa in residence.

Homemaker’s ruin


‘In America 100 years ago, their social critics worried about department stores – that they were glamorous, alluring places that could lead unchaperoned middle-class women astray. There was moral panic that women would be put in a trance by the music and lights, and buy things they couldn’t afford; that shopping was distracting them from charity work and knitting circles; that going downtown to the department stores was a threat to social order.’1



Department stores were mostly built in urban areas, but malls, erected in the era of private car ownership, have generally been sited at a distance from other major commercial centres. Designed and built on previously undeveloped land, their large structures are enclosed, air-conditioned, and protected from the weather. Malls generally present blank, windowless façades to nearby roads or parking areas. Department stores attracted passing foot-traffic with their window dressing, but the striking visual displays of mall retailers face inward.

Shopping as entertainment

As department stores grouped related merchandise on particular floors, similar shops in malls are deliberately clustered together. The flow of foot traffic past shops is carefully planned and controlled by features that include plants, fountains, seating and kiosks. Malls create an artificially lit, air-conditioned world of shopping entertainment. The atmosphere is one of carefree leisure – with an absence of clocks so that the passing of time is less evident. Department stores, too, aimed to bring shopping and entertainment together in a new and modern way.

Walking the mall


LynnMall’s MallWalkers group celebrated 10 years of twice-weekly walks in the mall in 2009. Personal trainer Grace Machin pointed out that the group could keep fit for free in a climate-controlled area: ‘There are no intersections or exhaust fumes, friendly security staff are always nearby and there’s a restroom and water when you need it.’2 The Mall Fit walking group at Sylvia Park has over 100 members aged between 17 and 78. Walkers receive a free pedometer and drink bottle, and discounts from mall shops. The phenomenon has even inspired a book, The complete mall walker’s handbook, by American doctor John Bland.


Comfort for customers

Malls, like department stores, have become much more than sites of consumption. Late 19th-century department stores offered middle-class women a new opportunity to meet, dine and shop in the public domain. Malls also provide a comfortable and safe meeting-place for people of all ages. Shopping has become a more casual affair; shoppers no longer feel the need to dress up. People of all ages and social groups visit malls with friends and family. As well as shopping, they eat, browse, go to the cinema or just ‘hang out’. A significant number come for social contact or ‘people-watching’.

Will malls pall?

Market research has shown that customers prefer their shopping centres to offer an increasingly varied choice of retailers and recreational shopping experiences.

The ‘sameness’ of shopping malls has been criticised. Many well-known retail chains appear in most centres. Nevertheless, mall shopping remains a popular form of entertainment and a frequent leisure activity for New Zealanders.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Helen Laurenson, 'Department stores and shopping malls', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Helen Laurenson, published 11 March 2010