Around 13,000 people live in the town of Gore, nestled right at the at the bottom of the South Island. Famous for its trout fish monument, the town has long serviced the needs of the surrounding rural district and has traditionally had a strong CBD.
However, around two years ago, some troubling signs started appearing. For one, courier vans were doubling in size to accommodate all of the online shopping parcels.
Another warning sign was when Postie+ decided to shut up shop, as did a few other retailers.
Gore Mayor Tracy Hicks says the state of the town centre wasn’t dire by any stretch of the imagination, but it was enough to be a catalyst for change.
“I didn’t want to take the risk of waiting and seeing what would happen. I thought, ‘we need to be doing something here.’”
Hicks’ family has a background in retail, while Hicks himself used to be a manager at The Warehouse.
He says the knowledge he’d gleaned in retail probably made him more aware of the risk of inaction than others.
“Particularly in rural communities, councils have been focused on the traditional basics of operation – very infrastructure focused. Now with trends going the way they’re going, we’ve got to shift and become much more connected to how the community is shaping and we’ve got a role as council in that place-shaping arena.”
Hicks approached retail consultancy First Retail Group and the company put together a proposal to the council.
The council went for it, so First Retail put together an action plan to re-engage the community.
Managing director Chris Wilkinson says they realised for many consumers, the town’s retail centre had lost its relevance. They were instead choosing to shop outside of Gore, either online or out of town.
First Retail developed the GoRetail initiative, which included solutions retailers could quickly run with, as well as some medium and longer-term objectives.
One of the quick strategies was helping retailers realign their shop hours with consumer expectations, as Wilkinson says people’s lifestyles had changed and the hours weren’t mirroring it.
The next step was to spread the word and get the community back on board with shopping locally.
Wilkinson says they went back to consumers through the media and were very humble about it.
“We took on the message of, ‘We’ve been listening to what you said, we’ve made the changes you’ve asked for and we respectfully want your business back again. We want you to make Gore your first choice when it comes to shopping and we’re going to prove that we can deliver’.”
Retailers and the council decided shops were best left closed on Sundays to make the day about sports, families and friends, except in the lead up to Christmas.
Meanwhile, ecommerce company Storbie built an online marketplace, so local retailers could list their products and consumers were able shop locally 24/7, preventing further drift.
Both Hicks and Wilkinson say the community response to GoRetail has been great, with a big uplift in foot traffic and the spirits of business owners.
By most reports, Gore also had a good Christmas in terms of sales.
“We all had a great Christmas compared to what it could’ve been,” Carvin Streetwear owner Chanelle Purser says.
“If we hadn’t been proactive and had GoRetail, I think our Christmas would’ve been really sad.”
Not only have shoppers’ attitudes changed, but so have retailers.
Hicks says the cooperation and team-like mentality between them is unlike anything he’s seen before.
“Traditionally retailers are individual in the way they approach advertising and marketing. Now, there seems to be a major shift to let’s do this as a community of retailers rather than individuals, and that the opposition is not the person next door, but the person on the other side of the world.”
Purser agrees and says there’s more a sense of retailers looking out for one another.
The retail community has meetings about once a month where they share ideas and support one another, and Purser helps to mentor any business owners that need a hand up.
She says she can’t rave about the GoRetail initiative enough.
“It’s created a really cool buzz about town, even right down to people standing chatting on the street catching up with someone they hadn’t seen in ages. They’d stand chatting on the street for half an hour because usually they would’ve gone to the city and wouldn’t have seen each other.”
“At the end of our day our mayor was the instigator of this and I don’t know if many other rural towns would have a mayor that’s so forward thinking.”
Hicks says there’s a fantastic groups of retailers in Gore who are really keen to develop and grow.
“Retail has changed forever, and we just need to get our heads around what the new dynamic is.”