South Waikato veteran retailer Larry Sullivan has been running his clothing shop for 40 years. He's used to adapting to the ever-changing retail landscape, but then came Covid-19.
Sullivan bought into Morrissey's when he was just 18 years old and says the key to successful retailing in small-town New Zealand is to keep nimble - and to not be too fixed on being a specialist within a certain category.
Sullivan first got involved in Morrissey's in 1980. The business started out as a men's wear retailer centred around suits and shirts. Over the years it evolved into a surf lifestyle shop then expanded into selling women's wear, footwear, accessories and luggage. Today it is largely focused on street and skate clothing.
The independent retailer had changed direction as consumers demanded it, he said.
Covid-19 had been tough on the business, like it had for most retailers, and the pandemic had proven the case for an e-commerce presence, he said. The retailer was receiving orders via Facebook during lockdown as it had no website.
During lockdown when the Leith Place store was closed, Sullivan and his daughter used it as a distribution centre, packing orders in the day and having them delivered in the evening. He received a record 62 orders in one day over that period.
Sullivan said he was humbled by the support that he received.
"Fear of failure" has been his biggest driver over the years, but adapting with the times made the difference between survival and failure in retail, he said.
"I don't know that there's any secret, we've just moved and grooved with demand. We were just a men's wear store back in the day but have been able to change direction.
"When I think about it, it's just [about] being able to sell what sells at the time. I'm not a fashion aficionado or hooked on clothes, I've just treated our product as a commodity and sold what sells."
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While Covid-19 had been tough, Sullivan said Morrissey's had no debt against it and was in a stable financial position. Looking ahead, however, he anticipated supply chain issues importing stock from China and other parts of Asia as Covid-19 had disrupted manufacturers overseas.
Other keys to success in retailing in small-town New Zealand included being involved in the community, and to keep profits within the business, Sullivan said.
"Keep looking after the business and don't take all of the money out of it."
Having good staff - and looking after them - was also important, as was having fun and enjoying being in business, he said: "We work hard but we have fun doing it too - don't let the business rule your life, let your life rule the business."
Partnerships with customers and suppliers were also paramount.
His top piece of advice? "Sell what sells - don't try and think you know what sells - sell what the market demands. We're a little bit wider focused than most but I still don't try to be everything to everybody or the general store."
Why small towns need big names
Tokoroa, home to a population of 15,000, is a "small town, but big enough to be a good business town", said Sullivan. However, he said retail was suffering in the town.
"Like every small town, there's not a lot of retail in town, we're almost last man standing," Sullivan said, adding that most shops in the centre were food-related and second-hand stores.
Electronics giant Noel Leeming is gearing up to shut its Tokoroa store in September after years of declining visitors and sales. It will shuts its doors for the last time on September 20 after 10 years in business.
Sullivan said the closure of the store was sad news for the town, and this was a major concern for his own business as big-name retail chains such as Noel Leeming attracted people into the area.
"You can count the number of real shops that aren't second-hand shops or food shops in town on one hand just about, it is a real worry.
"Our main opposition is locals leaving town to shop because there's not a lot of options for them, and that's the same for all the small towns."
While a common misconception is no competition is good for business, Sullivan said a lack of retailers in small towns was bad news for surrounding businesses.
"The CBD is almost like an asset to a town and ours is a little bit sad at the moment ... and it's not likely to improve because corporates just aren't supporting small-town situations," he said.
"It's hard to know why Noel Leeming is closing the Tokoroa store because we know it runs at a profit - I can't see as a business person what savings they are making by closing it.
"It decimates the local community."
Noel Leeming chief executive Tim Edwards said despite efforts by the team, in recent years changes in customer shopping habits and a subsequent drop in customers and sales had forced the store to close.
Edwards said Noel Leeming was looking at ways to continue to service Tokoroa, including by a click-and-collect option from its Tokoroa The Warehouse store.