Wellingtonian editorial: Fingers crossed for city landmark

Last updated 11:09 25/01/2013

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OPINION: Kirkcaldie & Stains is holding its summer sale this week. Happily, it seems to have gone well.

A surprising number of people camped out overnight to be in early on Monday.

They were after Door Buster bargains, in which the store offers a 90 per cent discount on some high-end items on a first- come, first-served basis. For example, six bottles of Moet & Chandon went for $99, instead of the usual price of $700.

The Kirks sale drew throngs of customers, good news after what managing director John Milford described as "OK but not outstanding" sales over the Christmas holiday period.

It is well documented that Kirks has been struggling. The retail store has been relying on its property arm to prop up the balance sheet.

Kirks is a Wellington institution, a department store aiming for class and quality, a New Zealand equivalent of London's Harrods.

It was established in 1863 by John Kirkcaldie and Robert Stains with capital of [PndStlg]700 ($75,000 in today's terms). They opened a "men's hosiers and linen drapers" in a shed on the Beach, as Lambton Quay was known.

In 1864, Kirks moved to Waterloo House and did particularly good business with mail- order catalogues for out-of- towners.

The store shifted to its present site in 1888, by which time it had its own cricket team and choir.

Soon after, it advertised "absolutely and positively the largest, most varied and most complete assortment of ladies' and children's winter garments", pre-empting the Saatchi and Saatchi branding slogan by a century.

Kirks has branched out over the years. A store opened in Napier in 1897, and lasted 20 years. There was also a branch in Cuba St for seven years.

But the Lambton Quay premises has always been the flagship.

These are tough times for department stores.

There was a time when H & J Smith (South Island), Arthur Barnett (Dunedin), Ballantynes (Christchurch), Kirks, The DIC and James Smiths (Wellington) and Smith & Caughey (Auckland) all thrived.

Some have closed now, others limp along.

James Smiths, immensely popular, closed in 1993, leaving the Wellington department store market to Kirks, especially at the top end.

Kirks' influence has diminished. There was a time when its fashion shows dictated the season's trends. That's not the case now.

However, the store still offers undeniable quality and range - from cosmetics to chocolates, home furnishings to food.

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The service at Kirks has always been good. There are plenty of staff, and that doesn't include the doormen, piano player and lift operators, some of whom have now disappeared.

Kirks is trying to beef up its online sales, in an ironic modern tip of the hat to the way it serviced rural customers in the 19th century.

That might help, but for most customers, the charm is being able to walk around the store, looking, touching, discussing.

Kirks has had financial woes before. In 1916 there was talk of a "financial crisis". It struggled mightily during the Depression, especially when the DIC opened next door.

It has always bounced back. Hopefully it can again.

To judge by its summer sale this week, there are still plenty of customers who value the store.

- The Wellingtonian

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