As most small business owners would acknowledge, even if not too loudly, it's been a difficult two or three years. Trading in central Nelson and many other parts of the province has been slow.
Businesses, according to Chamber of Commerce chief executive Dot Kettle, have gone "back to their core fundamentals" in that time. Presumably this means they have tightened their operations, if not retrenching altogether, and kept a closer eye than usual on wage costs, marketing, opening hours and the like.
Now, however, Ms Kettle says the wheels of commerce are beginning to turn a little more smoothly. This reflects, she says, a slow rebuild in Nelson after a couple of tough years. She even suggests we are starting to see growth and confidence returning to the local business scene.
This is most welcome. Easy as it is to moan over business issues - about prices, availability, standards of service - the fact is that the retail sector sets the tone of many a town or city, creating significant influences on the lives of local people and the experiences of visitors.
What would Nelson be without its restaurants and cafes, tree-lined CBD, street buzz centred around the 1903 site and historic yet vibrant feel? Or Richmond without its busy mall?
It is easy to take for granted those businesses - whether branches of national chains or small independent traders - which add much to the vibe of the place, and whose existence depends on our patronage. Of course, that assumes they can deliver products or services that are wanted, at the right price, and succeed in telling the rest of us what they have to offer. The market can be an unforgiving place for those who get it wrong. Mere courage is no guarantee of success.
There does seem in recent weeks to have been more positivity on the streets of Nelson. Visitors have returned and brought their wallets. Perhaps many are Christchurch people who stayed away in the last couple of years because they were still dealing with earthquake issues, or were put off by the pre-Christmas flooding the previous season.
People also have realised that interest rates are likely to remain low for at least another year and it is not a bad time to build up assets with that big-ticket purchase . . . or finance their way into the new business venture they've always dreamed of.
New business owners invariably find the first year the toughest. They face huge hours, not only while the doors are open for trade, as they set up their systems, stay afloat amid a tide of paperwork, deal with staff and training issues, all the while trying to earn enough to pay the rent and keep the bank happy, let alone take home a small profit week by week and fight off the attention of established rivals.
Increasingly, the internet offers both opportunity (low-cost communication with potential customers) and threat (online competitors with fewer overheads). Let's acknowledge, then, the several new businesses setting up or re-establishing in new premises around the province. They need more than good wishes, of course - what they really need is a steady stream of customers. Whether they get them or not is to a large extent up to them.
- The Nelson Mail