Recession is hurting Whangarei retailers but few of them are tapping into the pulling power of inspired window displays.
Most rely on stock items, that is, the stuff they have in the store. Props, themes, style, topicality and imagination are in very short supply.
Now a new retailer could be about to raise the bar.
Window-dressing is a big deal for women's clothing chain Max, which opened two days ago in the prime Whangarei CBD site formerly occupied by retailer Scarpa. Max is returning to the city several years after closing a previous store. The new outlet is the only Max north of Albany.
Operations manager Sharon Stantiall says the firm places "massive value" on window display.
Max employed two full-time visual merchandisers who worked with the management team to design "aspirational" window displays, floor lay-outs, banners and signage, and sourced props, for use in all 37 shops.
"Our window displays give us an edge, they are absolutely critical to what we do," she says.
"There is so much competition - people can choose anyone. You need to make them choose you."
Whangarei businesswoman Linda Payne, owner/operator of The French Hen in the Civic Arcade, might be one of a kind but she and the clothing chain place the same emphasis on window display.
She says with location not a strong point (in an arcade running between the Forum North carpark and Bank St), window displays became even more important when she decided meet the recession full-on by doubling the size of the shop.
"Everyone was talking doom and gloom so I turned off the television news, took the bull by the horns and expanded into vacant premises next door. I thought, what an opportunity, the timing is not ideal but feel the fear and do it anyway," Payne says.
Alone in the business when she expanded the operation, she gradually took on more staff.
Working with a team had hugely increased her enjoyment of her work and brainstorming as a team had been the catalyst for increased creativity around all aspects of the business, especially display. Great display is not rocket science and it is not about money she says - rather brainstorming, planning, imagination, regular changes.
The window displays had helped attract and build a loyal customer base, along with a culture of treating customers as friends and remembering names, sticking to the niche market of French/nostalgia and what she calls realistic prices.
Sales were rarely one-off. "We get repeat business all the time. It's allowed us to stay in business and grow," Payne says.
Photos of some of the shop's window displays had been sent to Professor Andrew Parsons at Auckland University of Technology a couple of years ago.
"During a lecture he was bemoaning that fact that the art of window-dressing was dead or dying," Payne says.
"A Whangarei student in the class put her hand up and said 'I know of a place where it isn't' and he said, please send photos."
One display - a stark grouping of bare trees, back-lit crosses and hay bales commemorating Anzac Day- had old soldiers crying outside the shop. Ms Payne admits few if any of the old soldiers came into the shop but had no regrets about addressing Anzac losses.
"It sure got us noticed."
Alan Faber, owner of 70-year-old Whangarei business Fabers Furnishings, which is on busy arterial route Walton St outside the main retail area, said while he acknowledged the importance of window display, he had recently directed marketing funds into modernising the website.
Many customers were now visiting the shop after doing their research on the website. The photographs and historical information celebrating 70 years in business had attracted a lot of interest, he said (although this can only be appreciated close-up and has no impact on passing traffic).
McCoy & Thomas Sports Hunting & Fishing NZ manager Jason Searle admitted the windows were sometimes obscured by the amount of product stacked outside - "but it seems to work quite well for us in terms of sales".
"Now and then we might spend a little bit of money on it, other times we will keep costs to a minimum."
The Vitalise Whangarei group wanted to persuade CBD retailers to go big on fairy lights but the idea has not caught on. They may have agreed with the Christmas light Grinch who pointed out, quite rightly, that the tactic wouldn't generate any sales because all the shops are shut by the time the lights come on.
So how about lighting up the town by day and all year round with some innovative window displays?