Childcare centres are offering big discounts for new customers as centres open up in fast-growing suburbs just as demand falls due to Covid-19.
Four out of 13 centres in the expanding Kumeū-Huapai area in northwest Auckland are offering 50 per cent discounts for new children who enrol in the next two, three or six months, and a fifth is advertising free fees until the end of July.
In all those places, new centres have just opened or are about to open at a time when many parents have pulled back from daycare because they have lost their jobs, are working more from home or are still worried about the risk of children catching Covid-19.
The trend is one of several discovered by the Herald in a new series called Choosing Childcare, an in-depth look at the proliferation of ECE (early childhood education) centres in New Zealand, the costs of childcare, and its pros and cons.
Dr Sarah Alexander of the sector group Child Forum said some high-quality centres were now struggling "through no fault of their own".
"Supply in many areas of New Zealand is outstripping demand in a way that we have not seen before in ECE," she said.
"It is becoming unusual rather than the norm for a service to have a waiting list.
"The upside of this for children and families is that, instead of going for a service that has a vacancy, parents are now more likely to be able to choose from several and can shop around."
Ministry of Education data shows that early childhood attendance rates on Tuesdays, the highest day of the week, have recovered from 51 per cent on May 26 to 55 per cent on June 9 and 60 per cent on June 16.
The attendance rate is always well below 100 per cent because many children only attend on certain days of the week, but Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood NZ chief executive Kathy Wolfe said many were now attending less than they did before the Covid lockdown.
"The feedback we are getting is that we have 95 per cent of the children who have come back, however they have had a reduction in the hours they are spending in the centre," she said.
"Parents who have lost their jobs, or have children at home and are still working from home, are utilising the 20 hours free, and they are looking after their children outside of those hours."
The Government funds 20 hours a week of free ECE for children aged 3 to 5.
Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds agreed that "demand is down".
"There are some kids that are not going to come back," he said.
"What is the effect of that? It's fair to say that some [centres] may retrench and withdraw into their shell a bit, and some services may close."
Michelle Pratt, who owns the New Shoots chain based at Whenuapai, said there was already "a massive over-supply" of ECE places before the pandemic in Kumeū and Huapai, and also in fast-growing Papamoa in the Bay of Plenty where some centres are offering eight weeks' free care.
She said developers often included early childhood centres in new areas to help get resource consents from councils.
"And there's a little bit of speculating," she said. "You get people who are new to ECE who come in and see ECE as an easy tenant and on-sell it, and the new tenant comes in and can't make it work," she said.
Nationally, the number of children under 5 actually fell by 0.9 per cent in the five years to last December, and the numbers enrolled in licensed ECE fell by 0.5 per cent - but the number of ECE services touting for those children jumped by 8.2 per cent.
Whitelaw said centres were likely to be worst-hit in tourist hot spots such as Queenstown where more parents have lost their jobs, whereas population growth was still likely to sustain some expansion of supply in Auckland.
"We do town planning as well and we work with clients such as Kāinga Ora, and we have not seen any drop-off whatsoever on the housing side," he said. "I have been surprised."
Today: Where do we start?
Tuesday: What are the options?
Wednesday: Why does it cost so much?
Thursday: How young is too young?
Friday: The big players.
Saturday: Does my child feel loved?
Read the series at nzherald.co.nz/education