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Running a retail business from a physical address has become a lot tougher for shopkeepers large and small in recent years.
Enticing people away from online shopping is a constant battle and, depressingly, for some retailers many of the prospective customers through their doors might be tyre kickers checking something out before making a decision to buy it online. Shoppers can be a fickle lot, always chasing the supposed bargain, without necessarily thinking about what impact that might be having in their own communities.
It is understandable that any threats to street retailers’ profits are concerning, even if they might be temporary. This was clear recently when some central city retailers expressed their concerns shortly after the beginning of the Octagon Experience, a $150,000 trial to make the Octagon area more pedestrian-friendly. This includes parts of Princes, George and Stuart Sts and extends as far as Moray Pl.
There has been almost complete vehicle prohibition in the area since January 27 and this will continue until Friday. Smaller partial closures will apply after then until March 23. The closures have been timed to coincide with major events such as the Masters Games, Elton John and Queen concerts at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the Thieves Alley market day and the Otago Southland pipe band competition.
The retailers who aired their concerns publicly said after a few days of the trial their takings were dramatically down on what they expected at the time of year. This appeared to be linked to less foot traffic from cruise ship passengers.
There must be ways of encouraging such visitors into shops in the area and hopefully work is being done on this.
It seems unlikely that the sorts of shops there usually depend on shoppers being able to drive up to the door. They are not selling bulky goods which would need to be bundled into a vehicle.
However, some other businesses and services have also been upset at the changes to bus stops and car parks, the impact on traffic flow in the area and the difficulty those with limited mobility would have reaching their services. Concerns about the length of time it took to set up the streets for the trial are justified. It is a pity this could not have been organised over a weekend. As it was, the area looked like a dog’s breakfast for several days, with empty planters dotted about higgledy-piggledy and it was difficult for pedestrians to be sure what was going on.
Whoever decided that white picket fencing should be used to corral drinkers and separate them from foot traffic in the lower Octagon needs to re-think that eyesore, too. While there have been staff circulating in the area to provide information, it would have been good to see a general sign explaining the Octagon Experience. Anyone confronted by the No Entry signs at the entrance points would not have readily understood they were entering a pedestrian-friendly zone.
We can understand the City Council did not want to be accused of wantonly spending taxpayers’ money on this experiment, but we are not sure ensuring it looked more cohesive would have necessarily been more expensive. As part of its analysis of the trial, the council is seeking feedback on the Octagon Experience in a brief online survey on its website. The questions seem limiting: you can only say yes or no to the query about whether you enjoyed the Octagon Experience. Ambivalence is not an option. There is, however, opportunity to record general comments.
It would be unfair to be too critical before the trial has run its course. The point of a trial, after all, is to find out what works and what does not. We remain hopeful, that if the city is blessed by some better weather, that at the end of the trial most shopkeepers’ fears about their revenue downturn will have been allayed.