Challenges for small-town retailers

Oamaru has overcome plenty of challenges since memories of its heady days as a major port town faded, and it will need to dig deep into its innovative soul to address its latest crisis.

The picturesque North Otago town is buzzing on so many levels that it almost seems unfair to be shining a spotlight on one of its serious concerns.

Once among the most drought-prone regions in New Zealand, the Waitaki district is now humming, rurally speaking, thanks to widespread irrigation availability, and Oamaru's business sector and employment opportunities have accordingly received a serious shot in the arm.

Tourism has exploded, as the value of those historic stone buildings and those skittery little sea birds has become well entrenched, and a forward-thinking local council has proactively sought Australasian-first Unesco status for its ''geopark'', celebrating the area's geological significance.

Cheese makers, sweet manufacturers, top chefs - all have made their home in Oamaru. So, too, have as many as 2000 Pasifika people, transforming a formerly white-bread town into a much more interesting place.

Yet while all this combines to make Oamaruvians feel pretty good about their little slice of paradise, a wander along the town's main street lays bare a rather pressing issue.

While a business park on the northern fringe of the town is slowly growing, southern Thames St is, worryingly, starting to resemble a retail wasteland. No fewer than 17 retail and office spaces are empty - and that is a rather high number in a town of just 14,000 people.

Shuttered shop fronts are never a good look. They speak to a lack of economic stimulus, and they can be off-putting to tourists. Empty shops mean fewer shoppers, and that is bad news for businesses trying to stay alive.

The feeling locally is that Oamaru people are spending as much on consumer goods as they ever have; it is just they are tending to do so in the online space.

That may not come as a huge shock - a ''store'' has long been considered as much a virtual concept as one of bricks and mortar - but it does not help the small businesses trying to maintain a physical presence in the town, or indeed any town in the South.

One school of thought is the local council needs to do more to make operating a small business in Oamaru an attractive proposition, but politicians can only do so much. Mayor Gary Kircher alluded to that when he said the council already did what it could to both reduce the costs of running a business and make the town attractive for visitors.

Perhaps it is time for a ''buy local'' campaign. But who co-ordinates that? Who pays for it? And does that message now have much currency when it is so easy for the average shopper to find bargains online?

This might ruffle some feathers but the answer could be for Oamaru to pursue a plan of ''concentrated quality''. The town's main street is famously stretched, and it may be there are simply too many retail spaces for it to support.

Property owners might wince at the suggestion but Oamaru could look at concentrating its retail future in its new beating heart - the area encompassing the harbour, the Victorian precinct and the two southernmost blocks of Thames St.

Fewer physical buildings does not have to mean fewer businesses. Imagine, say, eight small businesses forming a collective and sharing the rental for one space.

Premises left empty outside this potential ''shopping zone'' could be converted into accommodation. A vibrant town centre can be a wonderful place to live.

Oamaru is not alone in facing small-town economic challenges. But it could, as it has done already in many areas, lead the way in addressing them.

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