The Retailer of N.Z.’s greatest hits
“The first issue of a new publication is an important and significant event, particularly when the journal has the duty of representing and expressing the views of one of the largest sections of the Dominion’s commercial and social structure.”
So reads the first sentence of the inaugural editorial of NZ Retail’s first editor. Writing for what was then called The Retailer of N.Z., they went on to promise to promote “efficient, fair and progressive retailing”, call for greater goodwill between employers and employees, and use coded language to rail against the then-looming international spectre of Communism.
While The Retailer of N.Z., seemed largely concerned with domestic policy and industry affairs, the shadow of World War II is still visible in the early issues. Some wartime restrictions and regulations remained in place at the time it was launched, and German refugees from World War II were referenced.
A short aphorism published in the first issue clearly illustrates the situation:
Prewar: The customer is always right.
Wartime: The customer was often left.
Postwar: Unless you treat customers right, you won’t have any left.
As The Warehouse Group’s Des Flynn recalls on pg WHAT, the years before the 1970s were marked by market regulation. Editorials and news articles in the first few issues of The Retailer of N.Z. regularly railed against import licensing, price control and poor product selection, with one early headline bemoaning that a “Carpet famine is coming in New Zealand”.
For many of today’s retailers, it’s hard to imagine whole product categories virtually disappearing, but the early issues of The Retailer of N.Z. were preoccupied with luring consumers back to their former enthusiasm for men’s hats, women’s corsetry and gloves.
Columns and supplier advertisements tried to equip retailers with tempting products and persuasive sales techniques to help their customers regain their fading interest in these outdated items. One series of ads persecuted “Hatless Harrys” by positioning going hat-free as a social faux pas “second only to B.O.”
The social perspectives expressed in the early issues of The Retailer of N.Z. were occasionally on the retro side. Apart from one letter to the editor, which called for retailers to draw a blind when changing the clothing on mannequins so as not to “offend the eye” of female onlookers, women were largely absent from the magazine and equal pay was just beginning to be debated.
However, one woman was very prominent in The Retailer of N.Z.: Queen Elizabeth. Until the late 1960s, Britain dominated New Zealand’s exports and imports, and this close relationship is reflected in the way The Retailer of N.Z. encouraged its readers to welcome the young queen as she toured New Zealand with Prince Philip in the summer of 1953-54.
Retailers were advised on do’s and don’ts when decorating stores for the royal visit, and a rush on already-short-stocked menswear was expected: “From what The Retailer has heard, there will probably be enough grey [hats], but shiny blacks are a different story.”
Not every issue discussed in the first issue has since been resolved. In 2018, managing staff continues to be a source of pride and frustration for retailers; promoting retail as a career is an ongoing project; and sales and customer services skills are as important as they ever were.
The New Zealand Retailers’ Federation included in the first issue of The Retailer of N.Z. a four-part code of ethics for its members. In an editorial leading into the detailed code, code author J.W. Wood explained that, while profit is important, all members of the retail trade should have higher ideals at front of mind.
“Have we not the duty to our fellow men and to ourselves to conduct our businesses as near to the Golden Rule as we can?”
Wood went on to explain that the history of the 20 years before 1948 – encompassing two world wars, an economic depression and a devastating flu pandemic – showed that “greed has been in the ascendancy”, but real value is about more than just money. His closing message is still relevant today:
“The highest bank balance in the world is not a sign that we are the best land in the world. True greatness is measured by the service we render to mankind.”