The future of retail in New Zealand’s vulnerable small towns

  • News
  • January 21, 2016
  • Elly Strang
The future of retail in New Zealand’s vulnerable small towns
An illustration of what Wainui mall's redevelopment could look like.

The Wainui mall has a distinctive retro 1970s look. It once was a bustling centre in its heyday, with many people located in the area for work.

However, recently it has been in dire need of a facelift and a new strategy.

The mall has been plagued by problems, such as a leaky roof and a declining local population, leading to major stores departing the area.

It was identified as being in need of redevelopment by the Hutt City Council and resource consent was granted in 2014, with $17 million being set aside to make the plans a reality.

Under the idea set forward, the majority of the existing mall was to be demolished, except the premises of anchor tenants Countdown and The Warehouse.

However, plans have since stalled and residents in the area are now scared that more key retailers will leave, leaving them without close access to many amenities.

Like many other vulnerable provincial towns, there’s much talk on how to save the area’s shops from further decline.

First Retail managing director Chris Wilkinson says demolishing the existing centre could pose problems, as it’d be tough to get 80 percent of businesses to commit to a new development.

“There’s probably just not enough business in Wainui to sustain that, given there’s strong competition in Petone [a nearby suburb]. You could build it, but you might end up with lots of $2 shops, rather than a mix of businesses. There’s past indicators with KFC shutting, the coffee lounge not being able to sustain business, even some of the barbers have shut – we just have to be realistic with these areas where there’s not room for a lot more retail, if any retail. It’s better to repurpose for community based things,” he says.

He says since Lower Hutt is seeing success with the community hubs it’s developing around the city, it’d make sense to co-locate a hub to the mall.

“This would immediately drive traffic and relevance for the mall and the businesses still located in there,” he says.

Councillors remain optimistic about the future of the mall.

Lower Hutt councillor and president of Development Wainuiomata, Margaret Willard, told Stuff she was confident the council’s plan would attract new business and help Wainui flourish.

She says the mall needed to be made unique in order to survive, with ideas like a niche market or a series of pop-up shops.

Another New Zealand provincial town raising concerns is Whanganui.

Last year, TV3 journalist Duncan Garner visited and labelled it a “city in decline”, reporting that there were 35 empty shops for lease in the city centre.

In another column, Whanganui business owner Dave Hill said he counted over 50 empty retail stores in the CBD.

Wilkinson says the city is facing significant social and employment issues which have impacted on the town centre and overall economic health, leading it to need specialist help.

There are also plenty of examples of provincial shopping centres getting it right.

Gore launched a ‘Love Gore – Shop Local’ initiative last year that had the media, retailers and communications groups promoting shopping locally to residents of the town.

The campaign led to retailers in the area having a bumper Christmas, The Southland Times reported, and local stakeholders will push on with the initiative in 2016.

Retail NZ’s #BuyKiwi social media campaign has a similar focus, encouraging New Zealanders to shop locally and within their own communities.

Wilkinson says there are solutions out there for towns that are struggling, but councils need to get good advice and support key local stakeholders.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure town centres are healthy, he says, as people form a lasting impression of a city when they visit them.

“When you rock up to a town centre and there’s lots of empty shops, if you’re thinking about moving there, or locating a factory or a housing development there, these kind of things are visual cues, ‘is this the place I want to be or not?’” he says.

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