Time to re-imagine high street retail

Retail NZ paid the Waitaki a visit last week, with Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford pronouncing Oamaru’s high street as “in a better state than most”.

We should take comfort in that, while nationally the retail sector continues to suffer from increased living costs, a rise in online shopping, mask restrictions, agitated customers and theft, with more potential doom on the horizon from Fair Pay Agreement (FPA) legislation.

The high street has long been heralded as an intrinsic part of the social and economic fabric of urban centres, but with online spending up another 54% on the last financial year, the downturn in in-person purchases is beginning to corrode the viability of physical retail spaces.

Retail NZ is currently advocating central government to discontinue mandatory mask-wearing in shops, to help ameliorate online spending and enhance employee well-being.

It appears as if the public has taken matters into its own hands, as research indicates less than a third of us are continuing to wear masks in retail spaces nationwide, while WorkSafe and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment have told retailers not to request customers to mask-up, minimising aggressive encounters in the workplace.

The group of retailers that met with Greg and his team in Oamaru voiced frustration with mask mandates and would like to see masks as optional for customers and employees alike, to empower self-protection, rather than what is currently felt as a penalisation of one sector.

Unfortunately, FPAs could be another fly in the ointment for retail.

If this Act goes through as proposed, 1000 or more employees of any given sector can trigger a bargaining process, conducted by unions, but binding to all employers in that sector in New Zealand. For retail that number means less than 1% of its workforce.

Outcomes of this bargaining process could create multiple minimum wages for each sector, with additional amendments for working weekends or evenings.

An iteration of FPAs operates in Australia, managed by the Fair Work Commission. A brief snoop round its website shows 17 different “awards” listed just under the letter P.

Retail NZ, Business NZ and Business South are advocating for FPAs to be scrapped, and wish salary negotiation to sit between employer and employee, with a framework of minimum wage and statutory leave, etc. decided by central government, with an outcome of increased wages and productivity.

As a sector that takes home 4% profit on every dollar spent, the potential cost of FPAs on retail may be passed on to the consumer.

Seventy-five percent of Kiwis are already concerned by the implications of FPAs on rising costs.

The Bill is an attempt to solve the humanitarian crisis of the increasing chasm between rich and poor, but could lead to rigidity in a time when flexibility is king.

However, there is an opportunity to re›imagine the Oamaru post-Covid high street as a more diverse, sociable and innovative space.

Short-term pop-up shops, and unique hospitality offerings deeply rooted in our heritage are emerging — The Victorian Lounge, The Criterion and Craftwork Brewery, for example.

People are seeking a stronger sense of local identity and community and Waitaki businesses are answering.