It’s fair to say Kirkcaldie & Stains has been struggling recently. In July last year, it hit the end of the line when Kirkcaldie & Stains’ shareholders voted overwhelmingly to sell the brand and lease its downtown building to South African-owned Australian retailer David Jones. The agreement marks two milestones – it signals the end of Kirkcaldie & Stains, and the first David Jones branch outside Australia.
Christchurch’s Ballantynes was New Zealand’s first department store, established in 1854, but Kirkcaldie & Stains wasn’t far behind. It was set up in 1863 by John Kirkcaldie, a Scottish draper, and Robert Stains, an English retailer. The two had met in Sydney as young men and come to Wellington for its business prospects. According to Kirkcaldie & Stains, the first store the founders set up was salvaged from the timbers of a wrecked ship – it stood on Lambton Quay in a site now occupied by the historic Bank of New Zealand building.
The business grew swiftly, expanding into and then out of a second building. In 1868, larger premises were built on reclaimed land at its present location. Kirkcaldie & Stains has dabbled in branches, operating a store on Cuba St for five years in the 1870s and even reaching north to Napier from 1897 until 1917.
However, since then, the department store has been a single-site operation. Over the years it has purchased surrounding premises to create the large site it now operates, surrounding the new stores built on these sites with its iconic facade in 1908.
The partnership between the founders dissolved in 1886 when Stains returned to England. The company remained under the control of the Kirkcaldies until 1931, when a controlling interest was acquired by British Overseas Stores. Kirkcaldie & Stains prospered under British ownership for more than 50 years, celebrating its centenary in 1963. It passed to the Renouf Corporation in 1985, which later changed its name to Hellaby Holdings, and became a public company in 1995 when shares were sold to customers and staff.
Kirkcaldie & Stains has survived some high drama. Its fashionable tearoom had barely opened when in 1898, a woman named Annie McWilliam drew a revolver from under her cloak and shot the manager, Ellen Dick, at point blank range. The pair had been involved in a long-running dispute over a hotel. Dick was struck on her left side, but the whalebone corset she was wearing saved her life by absorbing the bullet’s impact. Reporting on McWilliam’s trial for attempted murder, The Evening Post quoted the judge’s remark that she was “the most disreputable person [he had] ever seen in a court in this colony”. McWilliam was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Rather than a single explosive event, it was today’s changing retail environment which finally felled Kirkcaldie & Stains. Chairman Falcon Clouston says the store lacks the buying power and scale to compete with multistore regional and international stores, and the direct online channel it developed did not take off.
“A sure sign of how tough it has been is that our retail operations have sustained trading losses for each of the past seven years,” he says.
The company received substantial funds from the sale of the Harbour City Centre last year, but Clouston says the board could not justify investing those proceeds into the retail business when it was faced with such significant competition.
This week, it has been selling fixtures and fittings, from mannequins to clothes hangers.
Its white-boxed display trees were the most popular fixture being sold. A mixture of customers and tradespeople had been buying up the items.
Some of the department store’s memorabilia would also be going to the Alexander Turnbull Library and maybe Te Papa.
David Jones CEO Ian Nairn said in July that his company is proud to reinvigorate this historic space and maintain it as the home of New Zealand’s premium department store.
After the Kirkcaldie & Stains building is refurbished, it will open as David Jones in mid-2016.