Together we stand, divided we Mall

A further look under the lid of the great and the not-so-great of Wellington shopping centres.

 

While Johnsonvillians, with the patience of Job, await the bulldozers that will herald the start of work on their Shopping Centre revamp, I thought I would follow up my last article with a closer look under the bonnet of Wellington shopping hubs. What makes some tick like clockwork, and others splutter and fizzle?

 

It is not as obvious as you might think.

 

Money?

Affluence is surely the underlying economics of successful retail, right? Well, that might explain why Johnsonville is earmarked for redevelopment while poor Wainuiomata languishes, with half of its centre’s retail units unoccupied. It does not, however, explain why Porirua, with one of the lowest average household incomes of the region, boasts the most comprehensive selection of retail offerings. Nor does it explain how in a recent survey of 115 retailers across the region’s smaller shopping areas, affluent Thorndon’s Tinakori Road generated as many negative responses as Stokes Valley. But once you put the clustering of splendid antique shops to one side, the horrendous lack of parking on Tinakori Rd is at least one obvious reason why a few enterprises have come and gone in recent years.

 

Accessibility, then.

Sure, but what kind? For all the noises made by progressive urban councils, it seems that the car is indeed king when it comes to retail. Public transport links can enhance this, but while Wellingtonians are happy to use public transport to commute (happier per capita than their Auckland cousins, anyway), it is less crucial for the purposes of shopping except for the car-less and the elderly. The top criterion among retailers was good parking; that might explain the fury of some Island Bay retailers at losing a few parking spaces to the cycleway.

 

Of course, it must be choice.

It is indeed a truism that the most successful businesses tend to thrive when part of a diverse array of retail offerings. Yet this can be turned on its head too. Just as Thorndon seems to be a magnet for antiques (objects, not people!), Kaiwharawhara is the sine qua non destination for tiles. Competitors cluster to avoid being left behind. And while size does matter – consider the sheer number of major chains in Queensgate and Porirua’s North City Plaza  – one crucial determinant gives hope to independent retailers in smaller centres: destination vs. neighbourhood retailers.

 

Put simply, neighbourhood retailers are less location dependent and therefore ubiquitous, and with better chances of survival. These cater for essential needs rather than creating any kind of experience, and will prevail in the most run-down area: $2 shops, dairies, barbers, pharmacies, takeaways, liquor stores, op shops. Should Kim Jong-un inexplicably send a missile or two Aotearoa’s way, when the toxic dust settles, these are the hardy perennials that will soldier on, offering popsicles, hot dogs, second hand jerseys and Lion Brown to a shattered nation.

 

A view of Karori Mall from the street

Karori Mall  – Just another brick in the mall…  photo originally from Stuff.co.nz

 

Destination retailers have typically fewer competitors but are more niche: chocolatiers, pet pamperers, picture framers, vape shops. The problem with neighbourhood shops is that they do not attract other retailers, limited as they are to mostly locals and those passing through. For cul-de-sac suburbs like Wainui, but also larger and more affluent Karori, this explains the preponderance of neighbourhood shops, even in the mall. Destination retailers are therefore essential for a vibrant and varied retail experience.

 

Petone would be an example of a successful meld of colourful and quirky destination shops along Jackson Street and its satellites, with a bevy of large chain retailers also, as well as a good few bars and eateries. This requires a traditional high street of standalone premises in reasonable condition, with sufficient space for much larger stores and the parking to go with it. It’s hard to think of where else meets the criteria: Wellington CBD has parking and traffic issues, Porirua lacks higher end destination shops and places to eat, many small retailers on Lower Hutt High Street have suffered as Queensgate has prospered, rather than enjoyed any kind of symbiotic benefit.

 

And so the purchases of Wainui Mall and Karori Mall by Progressive Enterprises (Countdown) and Foodstuffs (Pak ‘n’ Save; New World) respectively, might actually be the shot in the arm that both suburbs need, from a retail perspective. As a non-Karorisider, my visits to the mall there are mercifully rare, but the location of two titchy rival supermarkets offering limited fresh produce must be enormously irritating. The charming Italian deli is a lovely example of a destination retailer, but will always be the exception rather than the norm in Karori for the reasons I have outlined above. A decent-sized single supermarket (surely Foodstuffs will not tolerate a competitor when the lease is up), with a few key shops such as the bank and pharmacy, seems a clear improvement.

 

A view of Wainui Mall and car park

What can lift the ominous grey clouds over Wainui…?– photo originally from Stuff.co.nz

 

For Wainuiomata, arresting the decline of independent retail seems a lost cause for such an isolated suburb – it’s just easier to go over the hill. But a new, large supermarket would at least make better use of the current space, and considering the primacy of the weekly grocery shop for that demographic’s expenditure, better to have that at least kept in the local economy as much as possible, keeping jobs in Wainui. Indeed, this school, which has planted its own vege garden and is developing an orchard, might point the way to some kind of local market if the idea were to spread – a sustainable economic boost for the suburb.

 

All of this may yet just be rearranging deckchairs on an ‘unsinkable’ vessel, however. In my next article, I will look at the inexorable rise of online retail, its particular appeal to Kiwis, and what on earth Wellington retailers might do to harness rather than be swamped by this tide.

 

Do you shop at your local mall? Why, or why not?

2 comments on “Together we stand, divided we Mall”

  • Guy M says:

    Fantastic post – I love it! Malls are a bit of a mystery to me – but big box retailing of hardware stores makes a lot more sense. And I honestly think that is a major part, that of course is never talked about, for fear of offending sensibilities: malls are sexist. They’re sexist because they are aimed almost exclusively at the female shopper, and where they are successful, it is because they are very good at their job (of targeting women). Malls are the personification of ‘safe space’ where the public are policed and only ‘nice’ people are admitted. The grunge, the scary people, those that don’t have homes or who might talk funny, walk funny, or smell funny are quietly removed. Check out Elizabeth Farrelly’s book ‘Blubberland.’ Goes into this in a lot of depth and startling clarity.

    • Bob Mason says:

      Interesting comments, Guy. I would have to agree that the sanitised, cloistered nature of some malls does make them achingly middle class and potentially excluding. I would say that that is more my experience of malls in America rather than NZ.

      I can’t agree that malls are ‘sexist’, though. Surely it is a business decision that most of the premises in a mall are oriented around women’s shopping habits because they statistically shop more assiduously than men. And men are hardly excluded from them per se. There might not be much that I would appreciate in a typical mall, but if there was more mileage in a ‘mall for men’, don’t you think such options would have been explored by now?

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