The economics of being nice

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    Great art history may have passed me by if, during my barefoot teenage years in waterfront Devonport, the prestigious Smith and Caughey’s department store in Queen Street – famous and beloved for its wonderfully intricate Christmas window displays – had not imported and exhibited a two-storeys high statue of Michelangelo’s David in its glowingly elegant atrium.

    The awe at the towering figure and learned debate about the magnificences of Florentine art stayed buried until, 10 years later and pushed out of a bus without so much as a guidebook, we found ourselves in a huge piazza in Florence. And there he was again. The awe-inspiring, enigmatic beauty released from stone by a young Michelangelo Buonarroti in 1504.

    Roughly following his 1000-yard stare, we drifted through an undistinguished door across the square and met the glories of our first blue and gold triptych in the Uffizi Gallery.

    Smith & Caughey’s was founded by the extraordinary businesswoman Marianne Smith, nee Caughey, in 1880 and has continued the traditions of great Western department stores from Victoria to Charles.

    The announcement by chairperson Tony Caughey last month that the Queen Street business may close after Christmas had all the restraint of old fashioned business ethics as he acknowledged it was a “deeply emotional” time for customers, suppliers and the store’s 240 staff.

    It came, he said, after a “perfect storm” of factors, including increasing competition from new malls, more luxury brands opening up their own stores, and roadworks in the CBD, which contributed to the decision.

    “In addition, the aftermath of the Covid pandemic has led to a reduction in the number of office workers in the central city on any given day, followed by the huge drop in consumer confidence and the mounting impact of the cost-of-living crises.

    “While long term there will be a positive impact from the City Rail Link with Te Waihorotiu Station in mid-town, the expected upswing in foot-traffic and consumers into the city is still several years off.”

    Given the near dereliction of much of Queen Street, inner city planning at the mercy of a shallow and short-termist council culture and the difficulties New Zealand businesses face in competing with giant global brands, the decision will probably be sad, but hardly surprising.

    Even the tax platform itself leaves overseas operators of shopping malls and supermarkets with wriggle-room to operate on generous remissions to parent entities while every New Zealand-based business pays the full whack of tax. As a political sales pitch, being “a good country to do business in” hasn’t served us that well.

    On a wettish weekend in Newmarket recently, foot traffic was glaringly missing. Only the mall was thriving, heaving under a pastiche of loud music and feverish recreational retail.

    Shopping in your local community is not just a nice to have. On Waiheke 10 years ago, we embraced a free-to-use campaign ‘Totally locally’, which was developed in Yorkshire and became a world-wide web of independent business and small towns under the same threats as we face here.

    The book, when it came out, was called The Economics of Being Nice.

    Our local campaign ran at the same time as the island’s successful bid to replace plastic supermarket bags and it created the tools for our businesses, groups and volunteers to help themselves – enabling them to boost, sustain and promote independent shops, makers and producers.

    It also quantified the financial benefits of sending money in the community round and round by spending it with local operators who can continue the practice until a $10 has gone through the local community many times, from coffee shop barista to cycle repair man to flower shop to grocer and butcher.

    “We aren’t “anti-chain”, we actually believe a good high street is a mix of these and independents, we just want a level playing field by giving indies access to the kind of marketing materials and support that the big guys have,” say the organisers, whose annual ‘Fiver Fest’ is now a national event in the UK.

    Founder of the campaign, Chris Sands, came to the island at the time and, through his The Good Company, still works with organisations and businesses to generate a unique mix of brand strategy and connection to place.

    What’s not to like? We estimated that the benefit of keeping each dollar in play within the local Waiheke economy was in the millions.  We are social creatures, living on an abundant corner of the planet.

    There are good things happening everywhere, even now. We are lucky with our innate connection to place and with the healthy mix in our community.

    On the other hand, we can often only buy tinned peaches from South Africa and China in the supermarkets and New Zealand milk powder that’s more expensive than its Australian counterpart. When it comes to vegetable soup stocks, only a single bespoke brand is grown in New Zealand.

    Go figure. And then do something, however small, about it.• Liz Waters

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