Driving through the central North Island towards Wellington one day a few years back, I passed a shop which claimed to sell computer systems and firewood. The premises were a former service station painted rose pink. It sounds like something out of a dream, but I remember it clearly.
This is my favourite part of New Zealand’s SME-heavy economy – these odd little stores that clearly exist to satisfy the whim of one particular person. This kind of store reflects the owner’s personality through an aggregation of business decisions in the same way as social media, or Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes, reflect their creators.
Of course, this isn’t the way to appeal to a wide range of customers. Every person alive is unique, and if your shop is too tailored to your own tastes, you’re catering to a target market of one. Corporates favour the opposite approach, using research to create a proposition that caters to the needs of as many people as possible.
We seem to have seen a slower rate of foreign corporates entering the New Zealand market compared to 2016’s parade of rapid big-name roll-outs, but that being said, Australian retailers including Chemist Warehouse, Adairs and Wittner Shoes all opened stores in New Zealand in the last 12 months.
This year, as with the previous, we farewelled a number of apparel retailers - most notably, the New Zealand franchisee for UK fast fashion retailer Topshop and Topman. Topshop was the first of the foreign fast fashion retailers to enter New Zealand, and has certainly been the first to leave as it folded after just three years.
As 2017 draws to a close, the topic on everyone’s lips is Amazon’s impending launch in Australia. Will it cross the ditch to New Zealand? If so, what will happen?
The corporate model is safe, as befits the enormous amount of money at stake. Like any enterprise involving human beings, there’s plenty of room for small-scale creativity within that model. But as a philosophy, it lacks a certain excitement.
For the smaller retailers – and compared to Amazon, that means every retailer in New Zealand – it seems that the best way to fight back is to continue to work hard at offering what Amazon can’t. That means having a connection to your community; offering excellent service; having a unique proposition and providing a great in-store experience.
One of the many benefits of selling computers and firewood out of a rose-pink service station is that, I assume, nobody else is across your particular niche. Not every retailer is as intensely specialised, but if they fulfill a genuine need within their community and do it well, there’s no reason Amazon will hold much appeal for their customers.
So, here’s to the unique propositions of New Zealand retail. May your 2018 be rosy.