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Moore Wilson's: 99 years in the family

Take any Saturday in central Wellington and you’ll find scores of shoppers descending on Moore Wilson’s sprawling three-storey flagship.

By Rachel Helyer Donaldson | May 23, 2017 | News

Take any Saturday in central Wellington and you’ll find scores of shoppers descending on Moore Wilson’s sprawling three-storey flagship. They’re picking up their weekend supplies of fresh produce, specialist foods and perhaps a Wairarapa pinot or local ale. 

In recent years, the capital has reinvented itself as a culinary hotspot, known for its great cafes and restaurants, flavour-packed craft beer and mind-blowing coffee. At the heart of the city’s food scene is Moore Wilson’s, a cash and carry store known as the place where the city’s chefs shop and routinely described as a Wellington institution.

Moore Wilson’s is renowned for stocking a staggering selection of food from around New Zealand and overseas. It is the go-to place for everything from freeze-dried pineapple powder to Malaysian cooking caramel Karamel Makasan.

Shopping in its ‘Fresh Market’ is an alluring assault on the senses: from the array of locally produced artisan chocolates, cheeses and other specialist goods to the aroma of freshly squeezed orange juice, cut flowers and fresh baked bread. Four bustling ‘food pods’, selling upmarket street food, are dotted around the Tory St site’s piazza and upstairs car park. 

The store’s ground floor also boasts a food service warehouse selling bulk quantities of dry groceries, frozen and chilled goods and a liquor store with an impressive range of New Zealand and imported wines, beers and spirits. 

On the top two levels is Moore Wilson’s ‘Variety’ department, selling everything from products such as bulk glassware and crockery for the hospitality trade, top-brand homewares like Brabantia bins and Blunt umbrellas, and toys by the likes of Lego and Hape. 

Moore Wilson’s is also notable for being a fourth-generation family-owned business with managing director Graeme Moore and his daughter, director Julie Moore, currently at its helm. 

Moore Wilson's managing director, Graeme Moore

Established in 1918, Moore Wilson’s will celebrate its centenary next year. And 2018 will also mark two decades of Moore Wilson's Fresh, the first fresh food speciality market to launch in New Zealand, in 1998.

Originally established as a wholesaler, Moore Wilson’s has built up the consumer side of its business as the dividing lines between wholesale and retail – and Wellington’s once strict zoning laws – have softened. As well as its flagship site it has three cash and carry stores in the greater Wellington region, in Porirua, Masterton and Lower Hutt. 

When Moore Wilson’s Fresh opened in 1998 it was aimed at both trade and retail customers. But it was household shoppers who really embraced the market, says Julie. “When we launched it we didn’t know how it would go – we do sell to the trade in the Fresh Market but it is predominantly retail.”

The bulk of the company’s business (across all departments) still comes from trade, primarily the food service industry. But Julie says Fresh “has been very successful” and integral in growing Moore Wilson’s retail base. 

“In the last 19 years since we’ve been in fresh food we’ve probably had more profile. And it was from there that our Variety department grew and also Liquor.”

“Our focus was about pulling together the best of top quality fresh foods [and] establishing relationships with growers and suppliers like local bakeries. Instead of driving around Wellington to a baker, a butcher and a grocer [customers] could do that all under one roof.”

The concept came from Graeme, who “plucked” the idea from the cash and carry places in Europe. 

Julie Moore, 46, has spent her whole career - more than 25 years - working for the family firm. From around the age of 12 she helped at the store in the holidays and studied hospitality management after leaving school. 

She was all set for a career in the hospitality industry when, in 1991, Moore Wilson’s started selling liquor and the chance to run the new section came up. “I wasn’t necessarily intending to come into the business but the opportunity arose.”

Local wine was a growth area then, says Julie. “We had a focus on selling New Zealand wine [while] in more recent years we’ve got more into international wines and become more specialised in that area.”

Graeme, 75, started working for the business in 1959 and is still actively involved. He took over from his father Stan Moore and remains managing director but says Julie will eventually take over from him. 

“She’s been involved right through and we share the same vision. I worked with my father… and got his philosophy and Julie’s the same. We’ve instilled the same family values about how we conduct the business.”

Julie says that Graeme (she doesn’t refer to him as dad) has taught her “a huge amount” about the entire business. “It’s been a bit of an old-fashioned apprenticeship really!”

The firm has never undertaken any formal succession planning, she says. “It’s really just evolved. We talk about it, and it’s a little bit unusual to be a fourth-generation family-owned business, owned and run by the family, so it’s certainly something we are aware of.”

Moore Wilson's director Julie Moore

Julie’s younger brother Nick, 43, manages the flagship branch. “He’s done a couple of other things and then got more and more involved.”

Since becoming a director in 1997, Julie has swapped her specialist knowledge of Sauternes and Semillon for a broader overview of the company. 

“I get involved in a little bit of everything whether that’s human resources, sales or category management. I know every new product that gets ranged.”

Graeme is similar, says Julie. “Our management style is to see and know what’s happening.”

Moore Wilson’s was established by Julie’s great-grandfather Frederick Moore, who emigrated to New Zealand from Lancaster in 1882. 

Who the co-founder ‘Wilson’ was, and why he left the company, is now a mystery. “There was a Wilson, but pretty much only in the first year,” says Julie. “The name just stuck.”

For near on a century, Moore Wilson’s has “resisted the temptation” to be bought out or expand out of Wellington, says Graeme.  

“We’ve had a few offers over the years… but we’ve stuck to it here. A lot of the people who approached us, going way back, for takeovers, they’ve all since disappeared.”

These days Moore Wilson’s concentrates on its core businesses, says Julie. “We like to keep the focus on what we are doing and we are constantly doing little improvements.”

These include its ‘food on the go’ stands, such as the Chook Wagon, a replica 1947 Citroen-H van selling free-range chickens cooked in its traditional rotisserie oven. There’s also Miki Sushi, which operates out of a bright red replica of an early 1900s Te Aro villa.

Both stands were designed and built by Human Dynamo Workshop, a Miramar model-making company whose other clients include filmmakers Weta and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. 

Last year Moore Wilson’s launched a pair of pop-up food pods, providing a chance for local artisans, cafes and restaurants to share their brand of street food for a week or two.

Other developments include a new wine, beer and spirits shop for Porirua and a ‘fresh craft beer’ section in the Wellington liquor shop with a changing selection of craft beer and ciders on tap. 

Probably the biggest change this decade has been the launch of Moore Wilson’s Online, which delivers around New Zealand. This potentially opens it up to a new customer base beyond the Wellington region. 

The company began selling liquor online in 2014 as Moore Wilson’s Wine Direct. In late 2015, the website was upgraded, rebranded as Moore Wilson’s Online, and the range was increased to include certain products from the Variety department and some dry goods. 

Julie is the first to admit that the retailer has gone into online quite late and “relatively cautiously”.

“We see Online as another [separate] store, and we only have a selection of our products online.”

She won’t rule out selling fresh food in future.  “I wouldn’t say no we wouldn’t, for us it was very much start and grow… our online business is just growing gradually.

“We don’t want to take the focus off our bricks and mortar stores,” she insists. “From what we’ve learnt, both are equally important and they work off each other.”

Previously, Moore Wilson’s was unusual in that it did not accept credit cards, proud of its cash and carry heritage. That changed with the launch of the website, but it does charge a surcharge, both in-store and online. 

Moore is adamant that the surcharge will always remain. “Our customers trust our pricing and we believe that is a fair and transparent way to do it. [It gives] people an option, they certainly don’t need to pay by credit card but if they do wish to we are simply passing that on.”

Moore is tight-lipped on how much online has grown the business, 18 months after its official launch. “It’s a very hard one to measure. Obviously you can see your online sales and there has been a constant growth since we launched online.

“I’m sure it has opened us up to new customers. But there’s that side of online where people look at products and then they come in store and that’s a very hard one to measure." 

There’s also “good growth” in the company’s base business as well, she says, making it difficult to gauge what influence online has had on that.

A “large amount” of online sales can be existing customers purchasing for people elsewhere in the country, she adds.

As yet Moore Wilson’s has not promoted its online store nationally and does little advertising in general. “We do shy away from traditional advertising,” says Julie. 

“We have a big customer base [and] database, and we believe that’s where we should be focusing on: increasing their spend and their frequency."

Word of mouth and reputation are “very key” to the company’s business strategy, she adds. “A lot of our time and energy is spent on getting the basics right. We believe that in retail, it’s about the products you sell, the service you give and the experience in store and that can have a huge impact.

“It’s about good service and creating an experience, the way our stores look and feel and the products we sell.”

Moore Wilson’s never does sales and eschews the “high-low structure that is very typical of some retailers who are constantly marking up to mark down”.

Moore Wilson’s slogan is ‘quality at everyday low prices’. The store stocks quality brands “that are going to last but are not going to be over-priced,” she says. “I think people believe they get good value with us.”

Those ‘everyday low prices’ apply to both retail customers and wholesale: there are no trade discounts, she says. “We have full carton, or bulk, pricing, and then you get discounts. So it’s not who you are, it’s what you buy.”  

As recently as 15 years ago, shopping at Moore Wilson’s felt like a privilege because, due to wholesaling laws, the company required customers to register and obtain a club card to purchase anything from its stores. 

The club card is no longer a requirement, but an extensive loyalty card programme has grown out of the old scheme. Julie says it has “close to” 100,000 members, although not all are necessarily active. 

The most loyal customers, those who spend $2,000 over a 12-month period, are upgraded to ‘gold card’ status. Shoppers can check their points and rewards on kiosks in-store. 

Moore Wilson’s is also dipping its toes into social media, with decent-sized followings on Facebook (more than 11,000 likes) and Instagram (3,000-plus fans). 

In March, around 200 people turned up to meet ‘My Kitchen Rules’ chef Manu Feildel by the Chook Wagon, “a fairly informal” event mostly promoted through social media, says Julie. 

Moore Wilson’s has almost 300 staff, and a management team of up to 10. The company recently started awarding ‘long service badges’ to those who have worked there for 10 years. 

Moore Wilson’s plays an active role in the community, donating money to groups as diverse as Wellington Free Ambulance, Ronald McDonald House, and the Wellington Swimming Trust. 

It works with ‘food rescue’ service Kaibosh, for those in need, and the food waste collection group Kai to Compost. Last October, The Pomegranate Kitchen, a catering business set up by four former refugees, ran a lunchtime stall in a pop-up food pod.  

Plans for the centenary are still coming together but are likely to include events for staff and customers, commissioning some art for the city and “some slight changes” to branding.

Julie’s husband Chris Mark works part-time in the business as well as looking after the couple’s children, Toby, 15, and Sophie, 13. “He doesn’t have an official role but we do operate like a family business: when something needs to be done everyone pitches in.” 

The fifth generation, Sophie and Toby, have worked in the store the past couple of Christmases, says Julie. “They still enjoy it, I think! To have a job and earn some money is exciting at that age. But it could also be interesting for them to know what their parents do.”

Until two years ago, Julie’s mother, Sue Moore, was “very involved in the business and worked in it for a long time”. She remains a company director, along with Julie, Graeme and his sister Lesley Parkin. 

The four directors have a formal annual meeting but most decisions are made “day to day”, says Graeme. 

He still likes to get out on the shop floor, he adds. “Just wandering around. I’m there, doing all sort of things, I’ve been known to push a trolley, if I see something that needs to be done I’ll either do it myself or get someone to do it. I’m very much on the floor and out and about.”

What does he think when he looks around the business he has built up? “I guess I feel very pleased about it, but I’m certainly on the look out all the time for things that need to be done, or improved.”

Graeme is definitely an ideas person, Julie says. “I have a lot of respect for him and the way he does things so I’ve been very happy to learn from him.”

The company’s relaxed style probably works because each family member has “different skills that complement each other,” she adds.
“It is a reasonably large business [but] we support each other.”

“We are quite a diverse company, not
only within our four key categories but also
the diversity of the four different stores. And we’re not a traditional supermarket or a traditional wholesaler either. We’re doing a little bit of both and trying to do it a little bit differently. Or just the way we believe is the right way to do it.” 

What makes Moore Wilson’s a Wellington institution?

Stephanie Cutfield, Wellington director of Zest Food Tours

“Is it included on our walking foodie tour? Absolutely. Moore Wilson’s is iconic in Wellington for foodies, it’s where foodies and chefs shop. The product is amazing and the variety is incredible. They showcase small artisan producers that you can’t find in supermarkets. They have a quite extraordinary range of artisan cheeses and the delicatessen products are out of this world.

“None of the artisan products have high levels of preservation, it’s called ‘Fresh’ and that’s just what it is. They were one of the first NZ retailers to sell free-range cheese and meats and stock paleo cereals. It even has a ‘Wild’ game section selling venison, pork, goat and rabbit - that’s simply as free-range and as pure as it can possibly be.”

Mark Limacher, Ortega Fish Shack & Bar owner and Moore Wilson’s customer “for 30-odd years”

“Every one of the Moore family is charming and they take the time to speak to their customers, and that has a drip-down effect on their staff too. That’s the charm of the place: it’s family-run.

“Julie in particular keeps up to speed on modern food trends and the Moores support local producers and give them a crack. If you’re a small producer it’s hard to break into supermarkets but they support the artisan producers very, very well.”

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 749 April / May 2017

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