Retailers need to do research, experiment, be willing to adapt

The Dunedin City Council is right to look at how that central city core can be sustained. PHOTO:...
The Dunedin City Council is right to look at how that central city core can be sustained. PHOTO: OTAGO DAILY TIMES FILES
It is time to start listening less to outraged George St retailers and analyse what really matters for the central city, writes Richard Thomson.

The calibre of debate around the future of Dunedin’s retail quarter, and particularly George St, is at a disappointing level. It appears to largely operate in slogans.

"Pedestrianisation jammed down people’s throats."

"Ideologically driven war on cars."

"Anti business agenda."

And so on.

It’s disappointing really when what is needed is evidenced-based thinking, research of other cities’ experience, and an understanding of Dunedin’s unique circumstances.

I am a retailer of 40 years. I have operated on George St all that time. I have also got the experience of running 20 stores across a wide range of retail environments. It’s a very difficult business sector operating in a rapidly changing consumer environment.

That would just be my problem if it were not for the fact that retail anchors a town centre and if it fails then the heart goes out of a city. And it is very difficult to re-orientate a built environment designed around retail to a new purpose that sustains a main street central city.

What tends to happen instead is that facades get hoarded up and building owners, starved of rent, let their buildings deteriorate. So I totally get the anxiety that underpins many retailers’ fear of change.

If it’s hard work now, what happens if the council gets this wrong? I get it but I can’t accept it.

The history of retail in this city and all others is one of constant change. If we could be transported back in time we would be shopping south of the Octagon right now. We would have a choice of a multitude of department stores.

We would be catching the bus to town in our best hat and coat and having lunch in tea rooms. And it would be tea and sandwiches not a long black.

So council is right to look at how that central city core can be sustained. And that comes down to process, not slogans. To make good decisions we need to start with crucial questions:

Where have our customers come from? Why have they come? Equally importantly, why have they not come? What drives the behaviour of those who no longer come to central city retail? Do different demographics think differently, and what does that mean for the next 5, 10, 15 years?

Yet too much of this whole debate has revolved around car parks, rather than these essential questions. There are approximately 30 car parks between Hanover St and the Octagon. To think that 30 car parks hold the future of Dunedin retail in their hand is, frankly, ludicrous.

We are debating the value of those parks without any idea of what the value of the alternatives might be. If it is less, then that’s an argument against change. If it’s more then that’s an argument for change.

What we need is a knowledge-based debate. What has worked nationally and internationally and what principles might that establish? How do these principles relate to Dunedin’s specific situation? For example: one significant difference between Dunedin and most cities is that their retail malls are on the main street and not alternative destinations.

What are the factors that actually drive Dunedin consumers’ behaviour? If it is simply convenience then web retail will trump any number of car parks. But if car parks are a key factor then how do you enable that with all the other things that impact customer choices. For example, click and collect is a rapidly growing retail trend. That will affect the importance and nature of the interface between how the customer arrives and the retailer’s front door.

While some of these things will be the province of retailers to answer and advise on, the majority won’t. They need to be researched with customers, both the ones we have now and the ones who currently go elsewhere.

When we understand their motivations, needs and desires, then we can plan the best outcome for George St. It may be, although I doubt it, that they will tell us that the only thing that matters is car parks. They may tell us that they would use the central city differently if we provided them the opportunity.

We will almost certainly find that the answers vary between demographics and we will have to decide what that means for the future. Retailers are just one part of this equation and their views matter — but their customers’ habits and desires matter more.

And another thing — trials are one way of establishing impact. If we are unsure about something then a trial is a low-risk way of finding out. And finding out that something didn’t work well is a positive outcome, not something to be added to the ammunition.

World-leading companies like Toyota put huge store on encouraging experiment. If it works, fantastic. If it doesn’t, then fail fast and celebrate the fact we know something more to assist us in our plans.

Can we start listening less to outraged retailers and really analyse what matters for the central city? Nobody could doubt that retail is much tougher than it used to be. That is because the world has changed, customers have changed, shopping opportunities have changed.

All that strikes me as a very good reason why George St might also need to change.

 - Richard Thomson is a former Dunedin city councillor and is the founder and managing director of Dunedin-based retail chain Acquisitions. He has been a George St retailer for almost 40 years.



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Vocal retailers seem to want to blame pedestrians and those evil cyclists, not realising the nature of shopping has changed drastically with the combination of both partners working fulltime and the advent of online shopping convenience. For a large section of the population there's no immediate time to visit the shops and there's a handy alternative. For the majority of those who can and want to shop, the environment needs to be appealing.

Are you saying the Dots and no traffic going through the area and a closed shambles of an octagon is appealing? if so it sounds like you have not travelled much or visited many great malls the world has to offer. The mayor and some on council are turning the place in to Steptoe and sons, its a shambles. If he keeps it up Dunedin will be the know of the grand online shopping town where to has no physical shops.

exactly this!

At last a voice of reason. Thank you Richard. Change is normal. Don't change...expect to be vanquished.

Yes, "change is normal". Now if only people would understand that also applies to the weather....

Mr Thomson, thank you so much for chiming in. My family and I now have another business we won't be supporting in the future. First, you state that you have run over 20 businesses in Dunedin over the course of the past 40 years. Am I supposed to be impressed by that? Every other year you close down and start over? It doesn't give a whole lot of credence in your ability to successfully address the questions outlined in your article. If anything, it's just another rehash of the failed paradigm that is strangling the city. I agree with your assessment on Toyota doing bold experiments. Unfortunately, we don't have Toyota doing empirical studies, we have DCC doing idiotic studies! Most importantly, the studies they are doing aren't based upon the wants and needs of the people of Dunedin, they are costly & just plain stupid! The DCC has taken away the voice of the people. They dont care what we want, they do what they want. I don't begrudge you your right to voice your opinion so don't diminish my right to voice my displeasure over the most incompetent group of people ever to be elected to the council in Dunedin. Like many, I won't spend a cent to support dumb DCC efforts like this!

Dear WandaW. Just for the record, I have only ever had one store in Dunedin and it has run continuously for almost 40 years. The twenty referred to are in 20 different locations across NZ. I guess that will give you another 19 to boycott. wrote the article not her. Its not her fault you can't articulate your business acumen. I read the article the same way she did. I don't think she is boycotting you because of that. I think she she is boycotting you because your selling out to the DCC. I'm boycotting because your response was petty. Sometimes it's better not to respond, this is one of those times.

Interesting response. That’s said, I think this typifies the mentality of a good portion of the business community in Dunedin. Thomson should be congratulated for 40 years of successful business. However, he still is missing the point. During his 40 years in business, he successfully replicated the opening of 20 “Knick knack” shops around the country. The products he sells are designed for a niche market, primarily the wealthy. Accomplishing this didn’t require research, innovation, experimentation or adaptability. A successful model was replicated over 40 years…period! This is the problem in Dunedin. People like Thomson think they are the experts on the best way forward. They aren’t regardless of what they may think! If you want to open a string of high end “Knick knack” shop; yep, he’s the expert! I don’t give any credence to his opinion on ways to improve the economy post pandemic. You offer NO solutions but further reliance on DCC which is headed in the wrong direction. You’ve used the same model over 40 years and are lecturing people about change? Really? Nothing changes in Dunedin. The only change is more shops are closing and more people look to the internet.

40 businesses nationwide, Wanda. And Richard has called for good evidence. Surely that's what you want, too. Don't attack Richard because you're shifty with the Council.

Ok Ron...I'm confused. Your telling me since Richard responded at 5:17 PM and your response at 7:02 PM he opened another 20 business nationwide? Does he have 20 shops or 40 shops? Which is it? You say he's called for good evidence. What is good evidence? I don't think Mr Tomson did a very good job in presenting his opinion. Its kind of like your, very confusing!

Nice article mate! Won't ever set foot in your store again! Rather shop online and avoid the CBD all together.

I won't trade with you because I disagree with you? You sound like a Chinese Communist Party leader.

Dear writer of this.
I hate going to town and avoid it like the plague, or the virus.
My kids shop online, 16 and 20. Town is screwed, coffee shops and bars are the only thing that can save it because frankly you've got to be desperate to go there for anything else. The shops won't have what you want anyway even though it's everyday stuff.
DCC has a dream, it's everyone else's night.are.

Richard Thompson I've spent from 1988 to 2010 visiting over 90 different cities around the world, from 2010 until the current day I have lived in 5 cities including Middle East, Australia and back in Dunedin for 18 months. I enjoyed shopping in these cities rather than spending the time in bars. What all these cities have which Dunedin doesn't and you have possibly intentionally left it out. They have Trains, Light rail, Malls and or Carpark and mostly warm climates. I strongly believe the current mayor is being sneaky and is the Greens and the Local and regional governments and ICLEI organisation 's puppet who template change and rubber stamp it quickly before people can complain - where is Dunedin's Light rail, trams, decent mall and the such like so people can get around Dunedin. .IAW Local and regional governments and Hawkins vision is to close the shops and turn them into inner city apartment living, now under COVID19 social distancing. BS. if that was the case why are all other cities not closing the main drag . Which members of the council have financial interests in these buildings or the old boys club (OBC) are you apart of the OBC.

Thomson raises some valid point. That means our present council will ignore him. Whilst things change some things also remain the same. People need to travel to get access to shops. A few may live within walking distance, a few may be lucky enough to have an efficient bus service (unlikely in Dunedin). Some will cycle and then realise it isn't a good mode of transport to carry the weekly shopping or the new 65" tv. The truth is that people will need to use cars to access the city centre, be they petrol, electric or hydrogen; and they will need somewhere to park. So all the folk out there that think cars should be excluded need to have a reality check. If you want to have a deserted city centre just exclude access for cars.

Dear Richard, thank you very much for reasonable article. A breath of fresh air in this increasingly toxic atmosphere.

After all this time in business the retailers know what to expect when the so called experimental trials are being made by the DCC. Retailers do not need experiments to know how to survive in George St. The rents, rates and conditions put on businesses are at least some hard things to overcome when there is a shutdown like we have had. Wages being increased by statute also does not help. Insurance went up much more after the Christchurch Earthquake and the GFC. Experiments of the kind established so fast by the DCC are silly especially since road users are not adhering to the speed limit and the police have said they are not going to ticket anyone for failing to do so.

All the "need to buy" basics are elsewhere now, the butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers that used to be in the CBD till after the mid-20th century. No hardware, paint, petfood, glazier, garden shops These used to draw people into the CBD for the (at the least) weekly shopping for whatever they could not get at the local dairy. There is a reason malls have what is called an "anchor tenant" that sells cheap fairly useful consumables people buy frequently. This draws them into the mall, so while there they go around the fashion, health foods, nic-nac shops and cafes. The necessities have gone elsewhere, big-box with huge free parking lots. Now they are adding mall-like extras such as cafes in Bunnings and Mitre 10 and there are shops inside the buildings of New World sharing the advantages of the parking lots. The buildings in the CBD are no longer suitable for that kind of store, and Dunedin people have voted with their feet - and with their car tyres. We are what we are. We won't shop inconveniently to please councillors and urban planners. They can please us, or fail the retailers in the CBD, it's their choice. We only pay for DCC follies, we don't get our opinions respected.

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