It’s 9 o’clock on a still, summery Christchurch morning, and the car park at Westfield Riccarton is nearly full. Inside the mall half a dozen cafes and coffee stops are satisfying the espresso demands of early-morning shoppers and late office workers. Already a few dozen customers—mainly women, most with push-chairs—are beginning the slow trawl down the wide, open walkways. The air is cool, the light bright, the floor spotlessly clean. Music flows from the sound system—a mid-brow, mid-volume, middle-of-the-road soundtrack to a suburban landscape dominated by displays, advertising, and the promise of a new and better you.
“People are increasingly thinking of themselves in terms of what they buy,” says Harvey Perkins, professor of human geography at Lincoln University. “It’s a question of identity. When you buy a pair of jeans, that little red tag is what you are buying, and the whole set of meanings that go with that. It symbolises a certain way of living that is seen by the purchaser to be appropriate. The popular way of saying that is ‘I am what I buy’, and malls are important agents in that process.”
As predicted by Karl Marx over a hundred years ago, says Perkins, we define ourselves by our possessions, and others by theirs. What we buy tells others who we are and who we want to be.
It’s what we do, it’s where we go, it’s who we are.
Nearly 30 years ago, before the tariff cuts and other trade-liberalisation initiatives of the 1980s, annual retail sales stood around the $7 billion mark. Over the last 20 years, a huge growth in retail sales has seen consumer spending increase faster than household incomes. In 1998, for the first time, New Zealanders spent more than they earned. By September 2004 the retail sector had a value of $54,213 billion, nearly 7.5 per cent up on the year before. Consider that, over the same period, New Zealand’s resident population grew by a mere 1.2 per cent and you will see an industry that is, in its own modest lingo, robust. Between 2000 and 2004, sales in leisure and recreational goods alone rose by over 39 per cent.
The present-day shop-till-you-drop consumer culture is a world away from the belt-tightening, buy-less mentality of post-war households. One Christchurch grandmother remembers the weekly ritual of shopping in the 1950s and ’60s.
“You went to the grocer, the butcher and the greengrocer about three times a week. On Fridays you had to make sure you had enough to get you through to Monday. Then there was the department store about once a month. Shopping would take about half an hour, and the same time there and back if you were walking. But it was a nuisance really. I’d much rather have been doing home things—spending time with the children, gardening or dressmaking.”
Two generations later, an annual survey by Christchurch City Council (CCC) found that, in 2002, shopping was in the top five leisure activities of the city’s residents, ahead of sport, films and arts and crafts.
Last year the retail industry nationwide employed 325,000 people—about one fifth of the national work force. Among the 49,000 outlets that make up the country’s retail-trade sector, the independent, operator-owned small business is still a major player, while local internet shopping, led by the increasingly popular Trade Me, is beginning to make an impact. But the most obvious growth in the retail market has been marked by the inexorable move towards new or expanded shopping malls, big-box retail outlets, megastores and hypermarkets (huge one-owner shops with a full range of groceries and general merchandise in the manner of United States retail giant Wal-Mart).
Auckland alone has 144 shopping centres, including arcades, malls and bulk-retail centres. There is 0.63 sq m of shopping-mall space per person, less than Christchurch’s whopping 0.82 sq m but far more than Wellington’s 0.52 sq m, which is almost all in the Hutt Valley and Porirua. Significantly, with its mall-unfriendly terrain, the capital retains a thriving inner city.
When it comes to retail, large shopping malls, big-box outlets (like The Warehouse) and megastores (dominated by DIY names such as Bunnings, Mitre 10 and PlaceMakers) are the biggest fish in town. Swarming round New Zealand’s city edges (the 1999 Resource Management Act [RMA] helped pave the way for retailing in industrial zones), gobbling up smaller stores and competing with other big retailers, they are netting the crowds as if there was no tomorrow.
Shopping is our new recreation. It is the new performance art, the new spectator sport. And the shopping mall, says Perkins, is the latest manifestation of easier shopping, of easier parting with money. In a recent survey of people in shopping malls, about 20 per cent of those questioned said they didn’t have a reason to be there. They were simply on an outing; the mall was somewhere to go. Malls and megastores certainly pander to visual greed. Walking through Westfield Riccarton, I feel the familiar thrill of what I could buy, who I could be.
That thrill has a long history. Think of village markets, French arcades, medieval carnivals, theme parks, trade fairs, department stores and expos. The centuries-old art of pandering to visual greed is integral to the consumer society.
Unlike the carnivals of old, however, the New Zealand shopping mall has a character that is the result not so much of the local environment or the people who shop there (inside a shopping mall, location, like time, is largely irrelevant), but of a carefully planned branding programme devised by one of the several large Australian companies that dominate the country’s mall industry.
In New Zealand, the forerunners of the mall were undoubtedly the department store and the retail chain; but whereas these tended to be in the centre of town, the much larger mall—as a result of suburban growth and increasing reliance on the private motor vehicle—has sprung up outside the traditional central retail area. Rather than the mall going to the people, the people go to the mall.
Since New Zealand’s wild embrace of neo-liberal economics in the 1980s, people on middle incomes have gained access to a huge range of international brands, available at any time in any city. As Perkins says, the days of arriving home from overseas with a TV under one arm and a VCR under the other now belong to a distant past. Fewer trade restrictions, backed up by recent growth in the farming and tourism sectors, low unemployment, easy credit and some of the most liberal retail hours in the world, mean that people feel they can afford to make choices.
Midday at Eastgate Mall in Christchurch’s eastern suburb of Linwood and the food court’s filling up. Plastic trays, most laden with fizzy-drink cans or paper milkshake cups, are carried to tables under huge banners bearing the legends “Enjoy”, “Relax” and “Style”. Although Eastgate is smaller and less upmarket than Westfield, its car park is full to bursting. Inside, against the same inoffensive background of soft music, bright lighting and clean surfaces, signs advertise sales, discounts and specials. Mothers feed their kids; young women grab takeaways. A few older people sit on their own, content to watch the activity around them. Malls are comfortable: every few metres there’s a living-room-style arrangement of sofas and chairs. They’re warm in winter and cool in summer. Parking is free, the environment is safe and the displays are pleasant to look at.
Although a recent survey conducted by Lincoln University found that 40 per cent of men like to shop, some 80–90 per cent of shoppers are women. “And they look for three things,” says Evan Harris, chairman of the New Zealand Council of Shopping Centres. “Car parking, the quality of the toilets, the food on offer. And food courts are vital here. The average shopping trip is 50 minutes. A food court in the shopping centre will double that.”
A recent rash of recreational and civic amenities means that malls are no longer simply about shopping. Many now house bars, restaurants, cinemas and fitness centres. Some have libraries, a community constable or a post shop. There is a progression towards the one-stop consumption centre that offers ever more conveniences—but no surprises.
“Consumption sites are increasingly places where people seek out experiences which are predictable, efficient, calculable and controlled,” says Harvey Perkins. “Such sites are sold and managed using Disney’s techniques of branding, marketing, pricing, ancillary-product sales, safety and staff performance.”
But while malls seem to be public spaces, they are in fact privately owned, thick with security guards and closely observed by surveillance cameras. The perceived risks of the urban world—a hangover, says Perkins, from the slums of industrial England—are left at the edge of the rugby-field sized car parks. Inside a mall, shoppers wander through an artfully created environment safe from unpredictable weather, dirty floors and threatening behaviour. You won’t see people sitting on the floor, drinking alcohol (except in a bar or restaurant) or even playing hacky sack unless as part of an organised event.
So are shopping malls good for us?
There are positives, says Christchurch police inspector John Doyle. They’re the focus of family outings, and in winter they’re warm and sheltered. People who are lost or lonely tend to gravitate to them.
“But like any major facility they are what we call a crime attractor. They attract people in large numbers and, at the fringe, there are opportunities for the unscrupulous. Malls are very secure places; they usually have a high level of surveillance and they are well lit. But there are car break-ins. Why? Everyone is a visitor. You just park next to each other. No one is really concerned.”
To reduce crime many malls are investing in more carpark surveillance, better outside lighting, visible trolley collectors, and barriers on concrete ramps to deter skateboarders. And mall managers are encouraged to maintain outdoor areas as much as indoor: as with any neighbourhood, says Doyle, if you let the environment deteriorate, people won’t care if it deteriorates even further.
It’s just before 4 P.M. at The Palms, in Christchurch, and the upmarket mall, café tables spilling out onto the walkways, is awash with school uniforms. In twos, fours and fives, with parents or without, adolescents cluster by the natural-ice-cream stand, outside Gamesman, at the window of Lippy’s clothes store. The music is barely audible above the chatter and laughter. Mothers with young children hurtle towards Farmers or Woolworths; three young men in blue blazers lounge in armchairs around a small coffee table.
“For urban youth, particularly young women, shopping malls are a place to hang out,” says Connal Townsend, national director of the New Zealand Property Council. “They like to shop, to meet with friends. They can spend a whole day walking around quite blissfully.”
Graeme Vincent, chairman of Child, Youth and Family Services’ Youth Offending Team in Counties Manukau, agrees that while there can be problems anywhere young people congregate, malls provide a safe environment in which to do so. “There are adults around, there are security guards, they aren’t exposed to the elements. It’s a safe meeting place, better than meeting under the local bridge or in a culvert.”
But the downside, he says, is the relentless power of the marketing machine.
“Adolescents are bombarded on all sides by advertising good and bad. And malls are places where you get to see what other kids are wearing. For some, you may not go to the mall because you can’t afford the gear that everyone else is wearing. You’re either cut out of the group or you have to try a bit of shoplifting. Or, worst-case scenario, take some other kid’s gear.”
But in this highly competitive world of retail it isn’t just the odd T-shirt that’s at risk. Two years ago the environmental planning group Envision New Zealand called on the government to place a five-year moratorium on big-box retail developments. The aim? To prevent further damage to small businesses, communities and urban centres, and to help main streets fight back against the huge suburban malls and megastores that are, says manager Warren Snow, ripping the heart out of inner cities and small towns.
“Big-box retailers and megastores do not refresh local economies. They can take up to a billion dollars in sales out of a local economy over 20 years, but what do they put back? They don’t use the local accountant or the local lawyer. They don’t hire the local plumber. They don’t even get local builders to build the buildings. Even the signs are made somewhere else. And when you replace 50 to 100 stores with one big store, that’s a huge amount of social interaction that is being stripped out of a town.”
Snow is particularly critical of major retailers like The Warehouse.
“They sell themselves on a single proposition—lowest price. To achieve that low price, they compete unfairly with small retailers, who don’t have the buying clout that they do. Such big-box retailers saturate an area, kill the competition, then reduce down to two megastores. They don’t say that over half of their jobs are part time or that they won’t be buying local product. And if they’re opposed they bring in the big guns—highly paid lawyers, RMA experts, traffic engineers and retail analysts to prove minimal impact and neutralise any opposition. Local authorities have bent over backwards to get these guys in; now they’re realising what a poisoned chalice they really are.”
Snow cites the case of Kaitaia. Following the arrival there of The Warehouse, the town lost two shoe shops, a book shop, two women’s-fashion shops, two menswear shops, a sportswear shop, one white-ware appliance store, a DEKA store, a music shop, two jewellery shops and two gift shops. When the big box comes to town, however, local retailers aren’t alone in feeling the impact. There is also what Snow describes as a “tsunami of cheap junk” (including electric jugs that last only two years because the elements aren’t replaceable) that erodes people’s sense of quality. With the deregulation of the pharmaceutical industry in 2004, small chemist’s shops—another anchor tenant for local shopping areas—are under threat as prescription drugs are made available from the large supermarket chains. Snow describes the situation as a conservation issue, no less so than saving whales, rainforest and kiwi.
“It’s ecologically wrong. It’s sustainably wrong. Big business has always had to have limits imposed on it in order for us to conserve the world’s resources and species.”
But people are voting with their feet: 53 million customers visited The Warehouse in 2004, equivalent to everyone in the country making 13 visits. Aren’t these big buying palaces meeting a demand?
“So are drug dealers. So are cigarette companies. They’re all meeting demands, but not necessarily in the interests of society.”
Snow’s concerns are widespread. Countries such as Norway, Poland and Thailand are starting to impose limits on big-box retail outlets (Norway has a moratorium on single-chain stores with an area greater than 3000 sq m). In Australia, huge malls are facing a backlash as town centres begin to turn belly up. In Britain, planning rules discourage the building of malls in the urban outskirts; instead, new retail outlets are encouraged to use existing urban space, or brown-field sites, rather than gobbling up more rural, or green-field, areas.
In the US many smaller districts are imposing their own limits on mall growth and the relentless competitiveness that has left the landscape strewn with empty malls and bunker-style stores as operators reinvent themselves in ever bigger, more elaborate guises. (According to a report by the Commissioner for the Environment, the average citizen in the US shops for over six hours a week.) New Mexico alone is home to 80 empty Wal-Mart stores. (American mall critic Al Norman has described Wal-Mart as “the merchant of mediocrity, the triumph of corporate culture over the individual”.) Even in New Zealand, each new shopping centre and bulk store involves a certain amount of cannibalisation. On Auckland’s North Shore, shopping centres such as those in Takapuna, Mairangi Bay and Browns Bay are struggling with the advent of megacentres in Wairau Park and Albany.
However, moves are underway in New Zealand to address problems of urban design. A new portfolio of Urban Affairs has been established, 2005 has been declared the Year of the Built Environment, and a new Urban Design Protocol, with a brief to help create more interesting and user-friendly buildings, spaces and transport systems, has been endorsed by over 80 organisations across the country, including architects, developers, planners, and central and local government. The protocol recognises that urban design has a significant influence on people and how they live their lives, and that high-quality design is an essential component of successful towns and cities.
Nevertheless, while such moves may impose some limitations on the big concrete-bunker retail outlets with their backs to the neighbourhood, they don’t deal with the mall as mini-municipality. Occupying an 18 ha site in Pakuranga, Botany Town Centre (owned by the AMP Property Portfolio) is New Zealand’s largest retail centre. Its 10 buildings embrace 54,000 m2 of retail space, house 150 stores and provide parking space for 2400 cars. Intended to give the appearance more of a high street than a shopping mall, the landscaping includes native plantings and suburban-style gardens with cobblestone pathways, gazebos, fountains and courtyards. There are the usual kiddy-cars and pushchairs, but also wheelchairs and motorised scooters. There are eight cinemas with wall-to-wall screens, the latest in sound systems and a “Circle Lounge”, where patrons are served wine and nibbles during screenings. In line with widely supported moves to provide civic facilities and recreational opportunities in suburban malls, Botany Town Centre is also home to a library and a community constable. Medical services are available, too.
“The original idea was to establish a new town centre rather than create a mall,” says AMP Property Portfolio general manager Stephen Costley. “So it isn’t a long gun-barrel mall. There are streetscapes and urban rooms; precincts for youth fashion. People today are more time-poor and cash-rich, so as cities become larger and travel becomes longer, people like to spend what time they have in malls and town centres. In a way it’s the path of least resistance: people use services close to where they live.” Costley points to the increasing tendency for people to live in smaller houses or apartments, often without any outdoor living space. “They want to get out and interact with the community. Teenagers like to show off. This centre was to create spaces for people to treat as their own back garden, like an old-style village green.”
Botany Town Centre is a prime example of the popular trend away from the old box-shaped complex with a supermarket at one end and a large chain store at the other. Its design has won an international award. Its external appearance is open and community-friendly. But critics point to the dangers of commercialised public spaces, of retail outlets hiding behind civic roles, and the kind of branding that incorporates fantasy elements such as palms trees and water features with ne’er a nod to local context.
As Warren Snow puts it: “These huge conglomerations have replaced town centres but they haven’t replaced the values and social glue that the town provided. Now they’re trying to reinvent what they’ve destroyed. A real town has a mix of owners and users. When you’ve got one bloody great company based in New York or Australia, there’s not that mix. It’s not a public space; you can’t go out and stand on a soap box.”
There are, of course, different degrees of antagonism. A locally owned big-box retailer such as Briscoes tends to attract less criticism than a multinational “sprawlmart”. A small suburban arcade now looks quaint compared to a 90- shop emporium beside the motorway. Certainly it is the larger suburban outlets that have the strongest impact on our real town centres, and that have been blamed for inner-city streets cluttered with two-dollar shops and money-lending outlets.
In a recent Christchurch survey, 89 per cent of respondents said they shopped on a Saturday. Of these, only 14 per cent shopped in the city centre. Of those who shopped on a Sunday, only 7 per cent went into the city centre.
Is it time to stop the proliferation of giant retail outlets?
“There is a limit, but we’re not there,” says Connal Townsend. “We just keep on going and punters keep on coming. We’re following the lead from Australia, where people think that land is basically a fairly nasty thing that has to be tamed. Auckland is running out of greenfield sites but Christchurch just keeps on rolling out.”
Overseas commentators have been quick to note New Zealand’s comparatively low rate of mall spread. While there is significantly more retail space per person in New Zealand than in Australia, only 15 per cent of retail spending takes place in malls (narrowly defined), compared with 25 per cent in Australia. With the added attractions of a buoyant economy and a growing urban population (Auckland is gaining about 20,000 people a year), the country is seen as fair game by proponents of large-format retail outlets. AMP, which, besides Botany Town Centre, also owns Supa Centres in Manukau and Christchurch, has been given clearance by the Overseas Investment Commission to buy 15 ha of rural land in Massey, in west Auckland. The site is to become home to a $234-million town centre along the lines of Botany Town Centre.
According to the New Zealand Retailers Association, Australian mall giant Centro is scouting for more opportunities in New Zealand, whether in the shape of completed malls, proposed malls or empty lots of land. Other Australian mall titans, such as the Westfield Group, the ING Group, Multiplex and Macquarie Countrywide, are expanding their existing centres.
Westfield, with 126 retail centres worldwide, is investing approximately $700 million in the redevelopment and refurbishment of its 11 shopping centres in New Zealand. Already Westfield Riccarton has acquired a new 50-shop wing that has increased its retail space to 46,000 sq m. It also has a new cinema complex and alfresco restaurant precinct.
For its part, local player The Warehouse plans to open 30 new hypermarkets in New Zealand by 2007–2008.
In the meantime, earthworks are already under way for what will become the country’s biggest shopping mall and office park: Sylvia Park, on a former military site in the Auckland suburb of Mt Wellington. Its Sydney-based property developers, the Kiwi Income Property Trust, have billed this as a new-generation town centre and “a catalyst for residential intensification”, promising to boost the local population from 6700 to 17,000. Within 20 minutes’ drive from home for more than half of Auckland’s population, the 21 ha development includes a large mall and office park, 3500 parking spaces and a small strip set aside for “future residential development”. There are plans for yet more retail space as well as movie theatres, restaurants and an education facility. The centre will have pedestrian access from surrounding streets and its own train station.
That inner-city shops can compete for people’s daily retail spending is looking less and less likely. “The battle’s lost,” says Townsend. “The inner city has to reconfigure itself to provide different types of retail experience.”
CCC’s Mark Bachels is a staunch believer in innercity retail. He has no issue with the village-green type of mall sited within an existing suburban area and working as the hub of local social and civic services, but there are ways, he says, to revitalise innercity shopping.
“What we have to do is learn from the success of the malls and emulate those bits that make sense for a central city. We need to look at principles like safety, easy parking, good lighting and protection from weather.”
Already CCC offers shoppers free one-hour off-street parking. A free shuttle scoots around the inner city, and the council’s parking income now supports a fund earmarked for inner-city marketing. A group of retailers and business owners have joined forces to compete with the suburban shopping mall and promote the advantages of the city centre. Bachels points to Christchurch’s natural environment, including Hagley Park and the Avon River, and its public squares, art galleries and central library as drawcards for shoppers and visitors who want to experience a city as opposed to a range of products. And if the role of the shopping mall is that of gateway to the global culture of consumption, local brands and New Zealand-made boutique clothing are increasingly making their mark in the inner city. Small precincts of sophisticated retailing and entertainment, such as Victoria Street, High Street and the “Strip” (a stretch of bars and cafes on Oxford Terrace), are playing their part in making the inner city a heart, “although not necessarily the only key hub”.
Further innovations are planned. The council is investing in large blocks of previously industrial inner-city land to be redeveloped for residential as well as retail purposes. A proposed urban winery, retail market square and park will add to the “villagey atmosphere” and unique demeanour that central Christchurch needs to pull back the crowds.
In Auckland, too—dubbed the world champion of sprawl—the inner city is working to find its niche in the frantic retail marketplace. Quoting high tourism rates and a soaring inner-city residential population, Alex Swney of Heart of the City, a locally funded organisation working to promote the central business district, is adamant that the City of Sails is on the up-and-up. “If you had tourists over from Los Angeles, would you take them to a mall? No. Here we’ve got the movies, the shows, the café culture. We’ve got Zambesi, Karen Walker, World, Versace. The nature of the CBD has dramatically changed. We are a quality, unique part of the market. If we wanted to compete with the malls, we’d be going backwards. With the dynamics of retailing patterns and the changing nature of the CBD we have more than compensated for the bread and butter of retail.” Swney points to the belated preservation and celebration of heritage sites, and recent moves to redevelop the waterfront, as prime examples of a city working to define a unique character in sharp contrast to the ubiquitous blandness of the mall. “Look at what’s happening in the United States. People are going back to strip shopping. They’re looking for a sense of community, something that represents them. They don’t just want air conditioning. They want to feel the heat in Arizona or the snow in New York.”
The main street will come back. Not in the guise of air-conditioned walkways, mid-volume sound systems and price-cutting megastores, but as an experience that is a little less planned and as an expression of something a whole lot more local. And in our over-shopped marketplace we may see new retail ghettos, this time in the suburbs. In the meantime, the sport of spending is far from dead. It’s alive and kicking for all it’s worth.