The end of the summer holiday hasn’t delivered as many workers to the Auckland CBD as retailers were hoping for, with foot traffic down by as much as a quarter from last year.
Retailers in and around Auckland’s Queen Street expected to see a bounce in summer spending after the long delta lockdown. However, that didn’t emerge, as Aucklanders spent their Christmas break elsewhere and the rest of New Zealand was reluctant to visit the country’s biggest city.
Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck said many CBD retailers had an extremely difficult time through the holiday period and were hoping things would pick up as people returned to the office.
Beck said there was a “small flurry” throughout the week, but foot traffic was still down by 22% to 25% from last year.
“It’s worrying,” she said, “as we’re not back to the levels that some of our businesses need to be to be sustainable.”
Retailers were hit hard by last year’s protracted lockdown in the upper North Island, and government data this week showed consumer spending didn’t bounce back in December by as much as some economists had predicted.
David Slocombe, director of Gallery Pacific which specialises in local jewellery and art objects, said the covid-19 pandemic was the worst thing to happen in the last 25 years.
He said his Queen Street store’s Christmas sales were down from the previous year's, which were already a lot lower due to the 2020 outbreak, in what was a “very quiet” holiday period.
Slocombe said he’d seen more people walking down Queen Street in recent days, but not by much – he didn’t have high hopes for people returning to the city.
“We’re looking forward to a post-covid world and international travel again,” he said, “as international business is the vast majority of our business.”
The looming threat of an omicron outbreak has already seen a freeze placed on new MIQ slots, and prime minister Jacinda Ardern this week said the nation would be placed into a red traffic light setting when the covid variant got established in the community.
Heart of the City’s Beck said many businesses struggled to operate under the traffic light system and the lack of people in downtown Auckland added to the stresses facing retailers.
The group was lobbying for more government support for businesses in the CBD until Auckland reached green in the traffic light system.
“It’s very, very hard for some businesses out there, they’ve been hit over and over again,” she said.
“I think it's going to be extremely tough for some to survive without additional support.”
Open all hours?
With no immediate packages on the horizon, some retailers have adopted new ways of doing business to stay afloat, such as reducing their hours of operation, while they wait for more workers to return to the city.
The owner of Sushi Factory on Vulcan Lane, who asked not to be named, said he believed traffic issues and roadworks in downtown Auckland made it harder for people to move around the CBD and visit businesses.
“Before covid, we were open seven days a week. Now we’re only open for six,” he said.
He said he’s lost a lot of regular customers, with fewer people cutting down the lane off Queen Street as businesses move away from the city and more people work from home.
“We closed for four days over the holiday period, which has never happened before in the whole time we’ve been open,” he said.
His restaurant had been busier in the past couple of days, but he didn’t think things were going to get much better in the coming weeks.
Still, not every downtown retailer was as pessimistic.
Keegan Solomon, store manager of The North Face outdoor clothing store on Queen Street, said it was good that people were coming back to the city for work, even if there were “a lot less people than this time last year”.
Solomon said his store’s holiday sales were short of expectations, with the CBD very quiet through the new year period.
“It’s going to take at least a couple of weeks before it starts to feel more normal,” he said.