Ho! Ho! Ho? Is anybody there?

By Rosemary Roberts

Santa had a bad day at the office at the Mall in central Whangarei last Sunday, a situation which highlighted the challenges of attracting people to Whangarei's diverse and attractive inner-city retail area.

There was not a child in sight when the man in red arrived in a shiny red convertible as part of the family entertainment/Christmas shopping day run by the retailers in the Strand shopping complex and the event was no mob scene despite extensive publicity and several entertainers and activities (but Santa was a hit when he got to the grotto where a number of children were waiting and retailers who had put maximum effort into attractions did well).

Reasons for the light attendance are hard to pinpoint. Was it the weather - fine and warm? Had families headed out to the beach? Was it too early in December? Would it have had more impact if more retailers had been involved?

As yet there are no answers but several clear themes emerged from an Advocate survey of a random sample of retailers and other business people the day after sluggish Sunday, asking for their views on how to make the CBD a happening place (see accompanying story) and how they feel about trading in the central city. These were:

  • Retailers feel isolated

  • There is a lack of unity

  • The city needs a retailers' association

  • There is a lack of communication over late-nights and other events: "They don't let us know what is going on" (but no one seems to know who 'they' are)

  • Christmas decorations would be nice and are they the responsibility of the Whangarei District Council?

Some were new retailers, which could be why there was lack of awareness of Vitalise Whangarei, a Chamber of Commerce initiative launched in 2009 to promote the CBD, with United Travel owner David Moss as chamber nominee for the role of volunteer co-ordinator.

David Moss says a lot of effort went into Vitalise Whangarei over two and half years but eventually he had to focus on his growing business.

He says there is too much work for a volunteer and the co-ordinator role needs to be paid to be effective.

"There's a lack of unity and so much work to be done to bring people on side. Just sitting down with people and convincing them of what needed to be done took so much time. The amount of time we had to invest in this far exceeded the time it took to put a campaign together.

"We tried to get retailers financially involved but we mostly didn't connect on that one. We need to be together from the outset. Right now there's a yawning gap - nobody wants to pay for the work but everyone sees the value in it. Everyone is looking to everyone else to solve the issue. It's a matter of business deciding that it's important enough to invest in.

"I would love to see a unified association for the CBD, call it a retailers association or Vitalise Whangarei, it doesn't matter."

Cr Merv Williams, manager for The Strand, says the Sunday event was the third in a monthly series. He thinks public appreciation will build if the series is continued.

He says The Strand will run a "night special" on December 20 but does not support the concept of a weekly shopping night suggested by some retailers. "I don't see anything in that at all."

Andy Mayhew, marketing manager for The Strand, said: "Some people are complaining that the council hasn't put up any big decorations, but when there aren't many decorations in the actual shops, you feel like saying 'why can't you get motivated to put up a few decorations yourself?'

"We work hard to connect with the other retailers with fliers and emails to their databases but we don't get much feedback. Life is really hard for CBD retail all around the world. Small retailers should realise they can provide the sort of exceptional service big boxes haven't a show of matching.

"Retail lethargy doesn't help. We have a beautiful CBD. We just have to work together to get the message out, so people will head for town thinking 'I want to spend my money here because I will not only get what I want but I will have a great shopping experience and I will have fun'."

There's no time to waste, he says. "I hate to say it but I think there will be a bit more blood on the wall after Christmas."

- Northern Advocate

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