Timaru and Ōamaru, both in the lower South Island, are a good example of how some towns develop a narrative that attracts tourists while others don’t.
But it’s not all roses for retailers, even in a town that’s internationally renowned, such as Ōamaru.
The north Otago town, population around 14,400, is famous for its Victorian buildings made of local limestone, or Ōamaru stone. It has also put significant effort into developing its Steampunk Festival. It’s paid off: Lonely Planet dubbed it “New Zealand’s coolest town” in 2014, while The Guardian named it “the Steampunk Capital of the world” in 2016.
Up the coast is Timaru, a South Canterbury port city which services the farming community. Its population is more than double (around 29,100), and natural beauty abounds, with sandy beaches, inland lakes and kororā (little blue penguins). Yet it’s arguably less well-known, lacking the sort of USP which tourists love and Ōamaru boasts.
Ōamaru and its surrounds saw great growth in the tourism in the past year. Tourism activity in the Waitaki District rose 4.9 percent over the June 2019 year and this helped to boost retail outcomes, says Infometrics.
Timaru performed well, too, however, thanks to strong dairy out-turns and low unemployment (2.1 percent). Both factors provided added economic stimulus to the area.
Tourism spending in the Timaru area also remains strong, although it is vulnerable to a potential fall in international tourist arrivals.
Back in Ōamaru, not all retailers have benefited from tourism. Visitors flock to the town’s old part of town and the Harbour St precinct, while the town centre flounders. Anecdotally, there are around 12 empty retail or office spaces in the main street.
The Waitaki District Council’s marketing focus and its Harbour Strategy project is drawing business away from the main part of town, says Design Federation owner Annabel Berry, the driving force behind the new Ōamaru Business Collective.
She’s concerned that Ōamaru is not being looked at as a whole. “The priority has to be the town centre and ensuring we have a bright and vibrant future for our local business community first.”
The collective has held launched a successful ‘shop local’ event, Shoptober, and six pre-Christmas late nights. It’s also working with the council to create “a better town” for community gatherings and events which support retail.
Whether they’re steampunk shops or main street stores, Berry says all Ōamaru retailers should focus on “what brings us all together and that is limestone… it’s the one aspect that sets us apart from other towns”.
“The better we look and the more pride we have in our town, the more people will be attracted to shop and visit there.”
Timaru, too, is also looking to transform its centre. The Timaru CBD Group was formed in 2017 and retailers form a key part of this, says Nigel Davenport, chief executive for Timaru’s economic development agency Aoraki Development.
Initiatives include extending free car parking time in the main street, holding festivals and street parties and a ‘light up the town’ project with fairy lights in trees.
“All of these activities help to make the CBD a vibrant and attractive place to come to and that in turn helps bring potential shoppers into town for the retailers.”
For Timaru the emphasis is on attracting locals. Most of its retail trade comes from the surrounding district, says Davenport.
This is true for womenswear shop Fashion Focus, whose customers are predominantly from Timaru, Geraldine and Waimate, says owner Suzanne Talbot.
Fashion Focus stocks the largest selection of occasionwear south of Christchurch, she says. But it’s difficult to compete pricewise with larger chains. Fashion Focus concentrates on providing top quality products and “building strong ongoing relationships” with existing customers.
“We would be more than happy to have more tourists through the door, however we are focused on servicing our locals and providing a positive, welcoming space where they can buy current fashions.”
This story originally appeared in NZ Retail issue 765 December 2019 / January 2020