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Local business leaders are calling on the community to generate ideas and decide priorities in considering the regeneration of Oamaru’s main street.

At present, there are 15 empty store fronts in Oamaru’s central business district between Usk St and Itchen St, highlighting tough times for retailers.

That number will soon rise to 17 when Mainstreet Music and Natural Health close their doors next month

Sue Black, who has owned Natural Health for 14 years, said with the overheads involved, it was no longer profitable to base the business in Oamaru’s main street.

She will continue to run her store from home, running a delivery service.

“I love what I do, but we just don’t seem to have people popping in like we used to – there is a lack of foot traffic,” Miss Black said.

“Most of my clientele are regulars, so it’s easier for me to just reach them from home. It’s a lot more cost effective like that.

“The empty shops are a bad look for the town – it doesn’t look very inviting – but you just have to move with the times.”

Otago Chamber of Commerce North Otago advisory committee chairman Stephen Halliwell said it was the right time to start a conversation on the future of retail businesses in the town.

“Clearly we want a busy and vibrant CBD. It’s good for landlords, it’s good for the town, it provides jobs,” he said.

Mr Halliwell said a vibrant retail sector needed support from the local community, but residents needed to have an income that allowed them to do that. He was pleased to see a number of recent investments in the region.

He said some people now saw retail as more of a leisure experience, and one way forward would be to look at having environments suited to that.

One point of difference of “bricks and mortar” stores was the provision of a better experience for customers.

“People can go in there and try things on. They can have a chat to other people,” he said.

He questioned the appropriateness of a four lane highway in the middle of the CBD.

“There needs to be some work done involving the tenants, the users and the landlords of the CBD,” he said.

“As a part of that conversation, there needs to be an understanding of what retail of the future looks like.

“I’m not suggesting in any way that there is a solution tomorrow, but we have to start to get the ideas out there.”

Mr Halliwell said there had to be incentives for landlords to upgrade.

The Business Hive director Cara Tipping Smith said she supported the idea of a “hui” between local businesspeople, to find out the best way of working out the future together.

“We don’t really have an association of retailers locally and collaboration always works better,” Ms Tipping Smith said.

“This idea of being in competition is really an old fashioned way of thinking about it.

“If people work together, everybody gets more inspired, they shop more and spend more.

“There is a perception here that we need to go out of town to get things, but we really have everything here.”

Retail New Zealand public affairs general manager Greg Harford said the problems faced by local shop owners was symptomatic of issues faced by retail as a whole.

“We don’t have any hard data on vacant retail space on the high streets around New Zealand, but, anecdotally, we are finding that it is harder to fill high street retail stores, especially in smaller towns in heartland New Zealand,” Mr Harford said.

“We now operate in a globalised 24/7 shopping environment where customers can and do shop from anywhere, and can access almost any major store around the globe.

“This means that it’s very hard for a traditional small business to compete on price, so retailers really need to differentiate themselves.”

Mr Harford said while the internet posed real challenges for retailers, it also offered “massive opportunity”.

“It means that a retailer from Oamaru has the ability to reach a much larger group of customers than it ever could have previously, but it is important to have an offer and a product that are compelling.”

Waitaki MP, and National Party spokeswoman for small business, Jacqui Dean said the nature of retail was changing and small businesses faced the new challenge of competing with online shopping.

“The only way, really, to respond to that is to get good at it themselves – and there are some really great examples in Oamaru of people who have an online retail offering,” Mrs Dean said.

She said small business owners across the country were worried about the coalition Government’s legislative changes.

“Confidence in expanding business, hiring another person, buying more equipment, trying a new product line – all of those aspects are on hold.”

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher said the most important thing for retail was the shops themselves, and the goods and services they provided.

Mr Kircher said the primary focus, at present, was on the immediate harbour area, but that master plan had an area of influence which extended into lower Thames St.

“What we are wanting to do with that is create the start of a plan to how Thames St will look into the future, and extend that planning into the rest of the CBD,” he said.

Once the Harbour was developed, Mr Kircher believed it would be a straight forward development process along the rest of Thames St.