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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.