The heart of provincial retail

  • Opinion
  • March 30, 2016
  • Ed Donald
The heart of provincial retail
Image: Kerryn Smith

There are lots of examples of excellent and poor town planning upon which the vibrancy and heart of town CBDs rest.

A lack of foresight and planning has had disastrous, lasting effects on the vibrancy of central business districts in the regions affected. Examples of where planning has fallen down include Palmerston North and Whangarei, with excessive bulk retail on the outskirts ripping the hearts out of these towns.

Possibly one of the worst examples of poor town planning around retail can be seen in Hamilton. This is an expanding city which has seen considerable growth over recent years and every indicator should point to this being a vibrant place with a bustling CBD, but it’s not. Instead Hamilton has become a city with no heart - the result of further expansion on the outskirts over the past 15 years which has drawn people out of the centre and ruined the CBD. The beautiful heart of Hamilton by the Waikato River would have made a much better environment and shopping experience than the concrete jungle of The Base shopping centre.

Alternatively, good town planning can result in retail being largely contained within the existing business community. In doing so, this adds rather than detracts from the town centre. There are a number of examples around the country where this planning is being done right.

In Cambridge, retail is performing well while not sacrificing the province’s character. The café culture and hospitality options on the main street have been retained yet bulk retailers such as Big Box, Briscoes and large supermarkets are located behind this. Planners and council workers have been careful to ensure the character of the town has been retained and added to rather than detracted from when new retailers move in.

In terms of how to trade differently in a smaller town compared to a larger region, survival is a question of looking at a place’s demographic and tailoring a business to this. Specifically, regional retailers need to look at the population and disposable income of the demographic within a 30-minute drive time. They also need to make sure their operating costs such as rent and wages are attuned to their turnover in order to sustain a successful business.

Smaller provincial towns do have to accept big bulk retail, otherwise there can be retail slippage in consumer spending as people travel to the next town to buy those items and their own town misses out. Location is hugely important.

Furthermore, in small towns business owners must engage with their local community. This allows them to connect and network with customers while building a recognised, trusted brand. This can be done through a number of means such as schools, sponsorship and community events.

The type of retailers that succeed in smaller provinces also differ to those in large regions. Farm related businesses, such as PGG Wrightson and Farmlands, are showing the biggest growth despite the downturn in dairy.

Café culture in small towns is also growing. Previously reserved for yuppies in Ponsonby, shearers and farm hands are now queuing up for a flat white at their local café and as a result, the café culture is doing very well in the regions.

Several small town retailers are punching above their weight on a national platform. A great example of this is Botswana Butchery, a small-town restaurant from Queenstown and Wanaka that took on the big smoke. It took over the waterfront site of former Cin Cin, within the Ferry building on Quay St. Since then, the restaurant has become a popular and highly-regarded business. They’re winning and they’re looking to expand - an impressive regional success story.

When you have passion and input from locals, retail in the centre of a small town can work very well. When you don’t, it changes the heart of the town for the worse, or takes it away completely. However, if town planners do get it wrong, this can be turned around.

In Hamilton for example, there is the opportunity of going out for a beer or dinner on Victoria St - the main street - with its surrounding manicured streets, river views and historic buildings. This area has the power to bring people back because it has atmosphere. A lunch and night time trade could be created in this area to give the space a different focus and bring some life back into the centre. The same principles could be applied to some of the other provincial centres around the country that have lost their heart.

This story originally appeared in NZRetail magazine issue 742 February / March 2016

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