Sir Bob Jones

Commentary on issues of the day from the property tycoon, author and former politician

Bob Jones: Retail changes are killing our small towns

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Shopping centres, the internet and more-mobile customers are creating bleak times for small businesses.

Photo / Kellie Blizard
Photo / Kellie Blizard

A problem facing towns and cities is the decline of the High St shop. The exceptions are the prime CBD in which thousands of office workers provide a ready market, plus prosperous suburbs such as Remuera.

There's no more dismal spectacle in a town or city than empty shops. The window displays, particularly the colour and gaiety of dress shops plus activities such as book shops and coffee houses, provide a city's vibrancy.

Thirty years ago, it became voguish for Western city planners to zone sections of cities as financial districts and ban shops. Fortunately it never happened in Auckland but it did with Featherston St in Wellington and the northern part of Sydney's CBD. The result was ground-level dreariness. Eventually, redesigning the buildings' ground floors to accommodate shops was urged to restore some life.

That proved feasible in Featherston St but impossible in Sydney as that planning blunder coincided with the construction of massive office towers with ill-conceived vast ground-level plazas.

These proved wastelands and thus today at lunchtime, Sydney's office workers head a few blocks south to the centre city's shopping vibrancy.

Prior to the earthquake, Christchurch's CBD was fading, with empty shops everywhere. It's happening now with Hamilton's once-prosperous Victoria St. Other cities such as Palmerston North, Hastings and Lower Hutt, to name but some, have all seen their once-vibrant city streets fade. In the latter case the problem has been alleviated by the council buying up dead properties and transforming them into gardens or new road arrangements.

The source of these woes is of course the drive-in shopping centres. As the problem grew in England, in the 1990s a Conservative MP attempted a private member's bill banning further shopping centre construction, solely to save villages' traditional ambience. Quite rightly it was not a goer. People prefer shopping centres for sound reasons, which is simply economic democracy in action.

In recent years, some retailers' problems have been compounded by discount internet purchasing. Bookshops particularly have suffered, their numbers halving in Britain over the past 7 years. On the other hand this has provided salvation for the Post Office with their parcel delivery business compensating for the decline in letter-writing.

The technology is not far off whereby a woman can stand wearing a body stocking in front of her television which will accurately record her dimensions. Thereafter she can scan thousands of garments, choose her selection and it will be with her, a perfect fit, in days.

All of this has brought about huge changes in city ground-level activity. The take-up with the vacancies to date has been with Australian clothing chains plus coffee shops, restaurants and sushi bars, which have reached an extraordinary number in the capital, although not so in Auckland.

That said, I don't believe shops are doomed, for they offer a unique pleasure, namely browsing. That's why I - a book buyer to an irrational degree - don't purchase on the internet. I've learnt not to trust reviewers, their taste not always in accord with mine.

My other weakness is antique and bric-a-brac shops. Central Hawkes Bay has evolved into the nation's antique/bric-a-brac mecca, with even tiny crossroads Woodville now having nine. But will they last? A Dannevirke shop owner told me recently he was pulling stumps as Trade Me was killing off bric-a-brac retailing.

Half a century ago, towns such as Hawera might have four competing furnishing stores. No longer - with everyone owning cars, folk can be in Wellington in a couple of hours and visit 50 furniture stores. The smaller towns are losing out to the big cities and now have growing dead fringes with empty buildings. Where will it end?

My view is that the undeniable pleasure of shopping, aided by the rising numbers of consumers in ever-larger office buildings and the trend towards city living, will ensure central-city shops' survival. But smaller towns are doomed.

One thing's certain. Trying to predict future economic trends is a fool's game.

In the mid-1990s an American professor visiting Sydney prophesied that office buildings would become the dinosaurs of the 21st century. A year later, another American academic turned up and asserted that the greatest fortunes over the next 20 years would arise through office-building ownership. He was right and the first bloke wrong.

What it amounts to is that we live in a time of technology-driven massive change, unprecedented in human history, which is why economic predicting is extraordinarily difficult. As for the dinosaur prediction, over the subsequent 15 years, office space volume doubled worldwide. In 2001, a study of Sydney's CBD showed that for every two jobs lost through computer technology - wait for it - they were replaced by three providing computer services.

- NZ Herald

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