By the late 1840s many towns had grocers, butchers, bakers and greengrocers. Smaller towns would have a general store selling foodstuffs and just about everything else. In city suburbs food stores were often clustered in a shopping strip lining a main road, and typically included a grocer, butcher, baker, greengrocer and dairy.
By the early 1900s large grocers dominated in the cities. In Auckland H. M. Smeaton’s shop employed around 65 assistants. City groceries were downtown and featured mirrors, ornate fixtures, large bins and drawers. Some even operated their own bacon factories. There were separate biscuit and confectionery sections. Shop windows featured massive displays of goods. A weekly order system was offered, with free delivery and readily available credit.
In suburbs and peripheral areas of the cities, general stores and smaller grocers were standard.
New Plymouth grocer Ray Revell recalled an interesting customer in the 1950s:
‘We had an old lady across the road in the city council flats, she would come in and we used to watch her pick up a tin of St George marmalade and put it in her pocket, she had one of those big pocketed coats. When confronted with the problem the old lady denied that she had a tin of marmalade in her coat; we told her … we saw her take the marmalade. Her reply was today she pinched two cakes of soap not marmalade! We never saw her take the soap.’1
The working attire of grocers and shop assistants was formal. They always wore a shirt and tie, with a white coat and a white apron. Starched collars were attached to shirts by studs so they could be removed for washing.
A set of scales sat on the counter for produce sold by weight. Many bulk products such as flour and sugar were not branded, and the quantity wanted was scooped out of bins by the grocer. Similarly, cheese was cut from large blocks.
Customers recited their orders, which were written down by the grocer. They waited on the chairs provided, while the grocer dashed about behind the counter, going up and down the ladder to retrieve items from shelves, delving into bins and sacks and scooping and weighing contents. Rolls of brown paper, string and newspaper were used to package items. Sawdust was often scattered on the floor to reduce breakages and to soak up spillages.
Customers, who were predominantly female, carried baskets made of woven cane. Housewives tended to shop every day, or at least every two or three days. While many grocers offered delivery services, women still enjoyed an outing. It was a chance to dress up, get out of the house, and talk to other shoppers and the shopkeeper.
Shopkeepers and customers often knew each other by name, and many shoppers held accounts at the store. When the account was paid, the customer’s child was often given a few sweets wrapped in a twist of brown paper. At Christmas some grocers gave regular customers a box of chocolates.
Until the 1950s many people had no access to cars, and refrigerators and deep freezers were only just becoming popular. Milk and bread were delivered daily to houses, and grocers and butchers also offered delivery services.
Many shops had their own delivery carts and, later, vans. It was impractical for housewives to carry a week’s worth of shopping. Many staple and heavier items were delivered, while smaller items could be carried home in the shopping basket.
While some grocers advertised themselves as being ‘self help’ this was a misnomer – the shopping experience was all about service. Self Help was also the name of a chain of cut-price grocery stores that arose in Wellington in the 1920s. It operated on a strict cash-and-carry basis (most grocers offered credit and delivery). By 1947 there were around 200 Self Help shops throughout the country. Self Help competed on price by bulk purchasing, and by cutting services such as wrapping goods. Advertising costs per shop were small and they had universal branding, with new, brightly painted shops and signs.
Other grocers banded together to form cooperative chains which, through their combined purchasing power, could get cheaper deals from wholesalers and manufacturers.
Grocer George Allan opened a Four Square store in Auckland after returning from the Second World War. He recalled a sign in the Foodstuffs head office which summed up the cooperative structure of the grocery chain: ‘Remember the banana. When it leaves the bunch it gets skinned’.2
In 1922 a number of Wellington grocers formed a group in order to get better stock-buying arrangements. In 1929 they formed a company called United Buyers, which changed its name to Foodstuffs in 1931 – by which time 112 stores were members. The company established the Four Square branding for its outlets in 1924, and in the 1940s they adopted a uniform colour and design scheme throughout the country. Four Square had 1,000 stores by 1956.
Other grocers also banded together in associations such as Home Circle in Otago in 1957, and Southland A1 Stores in Invercargill in 1958. They were less rigid than the chain-store structure but still had some of the benefits, such as combined buying.
Early settlements needed meat, and from the mid-1800s butchers opened shops in towns and abattoirs were established on the edges of towns. Abattoirs supplied butcheries, although some butchers also did their own slaughtering – especially in rural areas.
Only freezing works could afford refrigeration in the late 1890s, so butchers had to rely on quick stock turnover. Carcasses arrived from the freezing works and were often hung under the shop’s verandah, where they gained the benefit of the breeze and also served to advertise the produce.
The floor of butchers’ shops were spread with sawdust – thicker behind the counter – which soaked up blood and caught bits of fat. The sawdust was raked out at the end of each day and was changed once a week.
Butchers typically wore a white and blue horizontal-striped apron from the waist down. They made their own smallgoods – sausages, saveloys and luncheon or German sausage (which was called Belgium sausage after the First World War).
Before home refrigerators and freezers became common, shoppers had to buy meat daily or every couple of days. Many houses had meat safes or even ice chests – but the latter required the regular delivery of ice to keep them cool. Meat was wrapped corner-to-corner in ‘butchers’ wrap’ (brown paper) and tied with string.
Butchers also offered regular delivery, and many customers had standing orders, which were delivered on appointed days.
Most butchers were family businesses, typically owner-operated, although some freezing works also had shop outlets. In 1896 the New Zealand Refrigeration Company bought its first shop in Christchurch – it would eventually own eight, but the venture was not especially successful, and the last shop was sold in 1913. Hellaby’s, a company with its own freezing works, owned 32 butchers’ shops in Auckland in the late 1950s.
Starting in the 1960s, Peter Leitch established a successful chain of Mad Butcher shops:
‘People ask me if I had a vision when I got my first butcher’s shop … No, I didn’t have a vision. I could get up now and say I did – pretend I was Martin Luther King, and say, “I have a dream!” But that’s bullshit. I went into a butcher’s shop, and all I wanted to do was pay the rent and survive. That was it. I didn’t set out to build a huge brand, but that was what happened.’1
A more recent chain of stores are those of Peter Leitch – a butcher whose one original 1960s store grew into a chain of Mad Butcher stores around the country.
In 1971 there were 5,173 butchers in New Zealand. The arrival of supermarkets in the 1960s, combined with greater ownership of home freezers, saw the demise of many urban and suburban butchers’ shops.
In the 2000s butchers’ shops tended to offer some unique product (such as halal or free-range meat) or service, or to cater for a specific market – such as a wealthy suburb.
In the 1800s, as towns grew, small-scale fishermen sold their catch from boats or to fish hawkers who sold it door to door.
In the 1860s rock oysters were very popular and, although there were no fish shops yet, there were fishmongers who sold oysters wholesale to pubs or to fish hawkers. From the 1880s oyster saloons – which served oysters in the shell, oyster stews, and fish and oysters cooked in different ways – had opened in many cities and were a feature of many New Zealand towns until the 1930s. Some fishmongers operated oyster saloons as well as wholesaling them.
In the late 1880s specialist fish shops became more common due to the advent of refrigeration and a more regular fish supply. These complemented rather than replaced fish hawkers.
Refrigeration allowed fish retailers to buy large blocks of ice from the freezing works and chip these to form a bed on which to display fish in shop windows. Fish retailers also often sold poultry and rabbits.
Retailers and fish hawkers bought from fish dealers, who bought catches off the boats at auctions. Wellington City Council established a municipal fish market in 1880.
In the 1870s fishermen in Auckland, who were selling their catches directly to the public and to hawkers, went a step further and opened up small stalls on the wharves. In 1889 the harbour board decided to build and run the Auckland fish market. For retailers irregular supplies kept fish prices high. Albert Sanford opened his own fish market in Auckland, in 1894. He also had retail outlets.
In Auckland the majority of fish shops were owned by Dalmatians. Some bought their own boats to try to ensure a more regular supply. Others bought directly from independent boats at the dawn market or from wholesalers.
In other centres cooperative fish shops had opened by the early 1900s. In Christchurch there was one run by Kaikōura fishermen and one by Lyttelton fishermen. Fishmongers continued to be a feature of urban areas over the 20th century, especially in downtown areas. Many also sold fish and chips.
Supermarkets began to erode fishmongers’ customer base when many opened seafood sections from the 1980s.
Greengrocers and fruiterers sold vegetables and fruit. Vegetables on sale in the 1850s (in northern New Zealand) included cabbages, potatoes, kūmara (sweet potato), pumpkin, maize and carrots. Fruit included pears, apples, grapes, plums, peaches, melons and quinces. By the early 1850s bananas, oranges, coconuts and pineapples from Samoa were for sale in Auckland.
From the late 1800s Chinese gold miners working in Otago and the West Coast moved into market gardening in different parts of the country. Some opened shops as outlets for produce from their, or their relatives’, market gardens.
European greengrocers struggled to compete with Chinese, who worked harder and longer hours. In 1896 one household decided to buy its produce from a ‘proper’ (European) greengrocer – at three times the price – only to find out that Chinese supplied the European greengrocer. The children of Chinese shop owners helped out in the shop, but their families also encouraged them to get an education.
Many people grew their own vegetables and used greengrocers and fruiterers to supplement what their garden provided.
Greengrocers and confectioners were generally open for longer hours than grocers shops, and were exempt from legislation passed in 1892 that forced other shop owners to close for a half-day each week.
Greengrocers were self-employed and bought their produce at morning auctions.
A 1923 display of apples in a Whanganui fruit shop showed a huge range of apple cultivars on sale. In the 2000s fruit shops and supermarkets seldom stock more than three or four apple varieties at a time.
Greengrocers and fruit and vegetable shops were much less common by the 2000s – supermarkets increasingly stole their customers from the 1970s. Those that survived were often specialists selling Asian vegetables and wider ranges than those stocked by supermarkets, or they catered to vegetarians and buyers of organic produce.
Delicatessens were uncommon in New Zealand towns, and tended to only be found in downtown areas or parts of cities that had a European immigrant base. Many were run by immigrants. German immigrant Carl Vogtherr opened a delicatessen in Hastings in 1914. In Wellington Greeks operated a handful of delicatessens or ‘pork-butchers’ as they were known in the 1920s. These delis sold a wider range of cured meats and luxury foods than butchers. One was open in Cuba St from 1935 to at least 1966 and another opened in Manners St in 1971.
In 1956 Dutch immigrant Aalt Verkerk opened Verkerks Deli in Christchurch on the corner of Manchester and Armagh streets. The deli still operated in the 2000s, but the company had grown to be a major producer of cured meats, supplying many supermarkets and other food stores.
From the 1970s delicatessens became more common, especially in wealthier areas, as New Zealanders developed more complex food tastes. By the 1980s many large supermarkets had delis alongside their meat sections.
Bakeries were an essential part of every city suburb and town until the 1950s.
As bread quickly goes stale, it must be bought soon after it is made. Bread had to be ready early in the day for morning customers. Dough was mixed in large kauri troughs and left overnight. Early in the morning it was kneaded by hand on a large table, weighed and placed in the metal tins it was baked in. Using a long wooden-handled implement called a peel, the tins were slid into a wood- or coke-fired brick oven to be baked.
Fire was a constant risk in the flour-laden atmosphere. The last wood-fired bakery closed in the 1960s, by which time most ovens were electric.
Until the 1960s most bread was sold unwrapped and unsliced, and was simply put in a paper bag at the shop counter.
As a boy in the 1920s Cliff Limpus worked in Newsomes Bakery, Whanganui:
‘One of the many bakeries of the time was owned by an alcoholic. He had two Model T Fords on the road, but the drivers arriving at work in the morning on many occasions had to bake the bread themselves after lifting the inebriated doughman out of the dough.’1
Bakers typically wore white full-length aprons. Often the small baker was also the shopkeeper and delivery roundsman, accountant and woodcutter. Bread bakers were exclusively men, while pastry cooks and cake bakers, a different group, were often women. The baker’s wife and daughters often helped in the shop or kept the books, and sons were sometimes groomed to take over the business.
To make money, bakers had to bake bread daily – they were tied to their ovens. The annual conference of the Federation of Bakers and Pastrycooks was many bakers’ only holiday. These were well-attended and renowned as rollicking affairs.
The baking industry was one of the most heavily regulated in the country from the 1930s to the 1980s. The government’s Wheat Committee, established in 1936, had a monopoly on the New Zealand flour supply and wheat was only imported to make up for a shortfall. One of the consequences was that bakers had to accept poor-quality flour and a very limited number of bread types were produced.
Prices were also subsidised by the government for certain types of bread. Flour subsidies ended in 1967, but price controls on bread only ended in 1980. Another complication was the universal 40-hour, five-day working week, which lasted from the 1945 to 1980. This meant that 40% of the week’s bread was made on Friday and customers had stale bread by Sunday. Later, some bakers began making a standard white ‘Sunday loaf’ on Sundays, so Monday’s sandwiches weren’t so stale.
Before good transport links were established, bakeries had to be close to their customers. In 1940 New Zealand had 730 bread bakeries – by 1968 there were only 119, with an average of 19 closing every year. In 1940 each bakery served an average population of 2,247; by 1967 the 132 bakeries each served an average population of 20,547.
In 1968 eight provincial bakeries established a cooperative company called Quality Bakers. By the 1990s it had captured around 39% of the New Zealand bread market.
By the 1980s the baking industry had changed from hundreds of tiny family-owned operations, with limited mechanisation, to a few, much larger, fully automated factories owned by a few companies.
There was also a much wider range of breads becoming available. Over the 1990s small niche specialty bakeries, selling a much wider range of breads, arose to meet a more sophisticated public’s bread tastes. Specialist bakeries also sold pies and some established themselves as prize-winning pie bakers in the 2000s.
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.
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.
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.
It is difficult to pinpoint when the first self-service grocer operated in New Zealand. In 1927 a shop termed a ‘groceteria’ briefly opened in Dunedin, where customers picked their own goods off tables, and placed them in a basket provided by the shop. By the end of the 1920s the Farmers’ Trading Company operated an experimental ‘Help-Yourself Groceteria’ in Auckland along similar lines, offering a slightly lower price as compensation for lack of service.
A Four Square self-service grocery opened in Onehunga, Auckland, in late 1948. By 1953 there were around 300 self-service grocers – around 10% of the grocery stores in the country. By 1958 this had risen to 25%. New shops were specifically designed for this form of shopping, and they increased in size.
Supermarkets changed the grocery model. Instead of bringing a list to grocers who then gathered all the items for them, the shopper had to select their groceries for themselves. In the 1990s some supermarkets went even further with customers expected to bag their shopping. In the 2000s some also offered portable scanners or self-service checkouts, so shoppers could scan the barcodes themselves, saving time – and saving labour costs for the supermarket.
The distinction between a large self-service grocery store and a supermarket is blurred. However, a supermarket can be defined as a large, stand-alone, self-service store with car parking around it. They generally have large selling areas, self-service and many check-out lanes.
The first outlet offering ‘one-stop’ shopping was probably the Four Square supermarket opened in Devonport, Auckland, by Bill Miller in 1957. Among the first supermarkets was the Foodtown 'all-convenience' store which opened in Ōtāhuhu in June 1958. It boasted 118 car-parking spaces.
In Christchurch the first self-service grocery stores appeared in the early 1950s. Kincaids, a large downtown grocer, also became self-service in the 1950s. The city’s first supermarket opened in 1963.
Until around the 1960s it was common for the customer wanting some food items to walk to the corner dairy. The traditional model of dairies, grocers, butchers, milk and bread delivery was all about taking produce close to the consumer. From the 1960s, as car ownership increased, the model began to change to one where customers went to the produce – in their cars.
Self-service shopping arrived in many grocery stores over the 1950s, but not everyone was enamoured:
‘In the more conservative centres, particularly in the south … it is usually found that the housewife wanted to chatter to the grocer, and has generally liked to be waited upon while shopping. She somewhat resents being left on her own.’1
Throughout the country local authorities began to plan for new shopping centres as suburbs grew and car ownership increased over the 1960s. These suburban malls or shopping centres often included a small supermarket. From the 1970s butchers, greengrocers, grocers and other small food stores became less common as supermarkets stole their customers.
Over time supermarkets grew larger and extended their range of goods. Branding became increasingly important, so customers would select one company’s goods over another’s, and supermarkets often developed exclusive deals with suppliers.
New Zealand supermarkets have been allowed to sell wine since 1990 and quickly captured the lion’s share of domestic wine sales. A 1999 amendment to the Sale of Liquor Act 1989 allowed the sale of beer in supermarkets, and allowed both beer and wine to be sold on Sundays.
The salad-greens market expanded in the late 1990s, as supermarkets installed refrigerated cabinets into fresh produce sections. By the 2000s supermarkets lived up to their name. They were fishmongers, butchers, confectioners, delicatessens, bakeries, greengrocers, fruiterers and grocers – and even more besides. In 2007 supermarkets attracted around 90% of the total consumer spending on groceries.
In 2007 the Foodstuffs group accounted for around 55% of the nation’s grocery turnover. It had about 850 stores operating under the PAK’nSAVE, New World, Write Price, On the Spot and Four Square brands. Progressive Enterprises, which operated Foodtown, Woolworths, Countdown, Fresh Choice and Super Value supermarkets, was the other major player, with 45% of the grocery market.
Who can sell what and when are questions that have dominated the grocery industry – and with good reason, as the answers to these questions could mean the difference between making a profit and going under.
In summer in the late 1800s shopkeepers and shop staff worked up to 14 hours a day, or until it got dark – whichever came first. Shops were closed on Sundays. Protests about the long hours of work led to the Shops and Shop Assistants Act 1892, which forced shops (except fruiterers and confectioners) to close for one half day in every six-day working week. This was usually observed on a Wednesday or Saturday.
Food stores were typically open 47–52 hours a week in 1900. The Shops and Offices Act 1904 ruled that all shops had to close at 6 p.m. on weekdays, with one late night (until 9 p.m.) each week. This legislation also outlined the types of goods that different types of shops were allowed to sell.
In 1922 legislation was relaxed, allowing shopkeepers greater flexibility in terms of opening hours. Bakers, confectioners, fishmongers, fruiterers and pork butchers were allowed to stay open until 11 p.m. one day a week and 10.30 p.m. on any other working day. ‘Dairy-produce sellers’ and butchers were allowed to stay open until 10 p.m. one day a week and until 6 p.m. on any other day. In the early 1930s grocers were typically open for 48 hours during the week. They would be closed for half a day on Wednesday or Saturday morning, and were open until 9 p.m. on Friday or Saturday.
The 40-hour working week was introduced in 1945, and Saturday shopping came to an end. For a time the law was more strictly enforced – but enforcing hours was difficult and a lot of illicit trading occurred. A limited number of grocery shops, mostly those in seaside towns and holiday resorts, were allowed to open outside of the set hours. In 1947, 145 shops in the country had been granted exemptions.
Over the 1950s the range of goods allowed to be sold by dairies and other small food shops (who could be open for longer hours than grocers) was extended. In 1968, 16% of all stores in New Zealand were grocers, 7% were butchers, 6% dairies, 4% fruiterers/greengrocers, 2% fish shops and 2% were bakers.
Saturday trading was reintroduced in 1980 and Sunday trading in 1990. Since 1990 shops could be open 24 hours, seven days a week, if they wanted. However, most shops (except dairies and petrol stations and some others) had to close on:
From 2016 territorial authorities decided whether shops in their districts could open on Easter Sunday.
Bolton, Joseph S. A company history of Foodstuffs (Wellington) Co-operative Society: the industry behind the shop counter. Wellington: The Co-operative, 1997.
Butterworth, Susan. Quality Bakers New Zealand: the first 25 years: a New Zealand commercial adventure. Auckland: Quality Bakers New Zealand, 1997.
Johnson, David, and Jenny Haworth. Hooked: the story of the New Zealand fishing industry. Christchurch: Hazard Press for the Fishing Industry Association, 2004.
Leitch, Peter. What a ride, mate!: the life and times of the Mad Butcher. Auckland: HarperCollins, 2008.