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.
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.
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.