Friendly store serves out a century

Farmers department store is celebrating its 100th birthday, although Timaru's store has had a presence on Timaru's main shopping street for much longer. Past Times talked to the author of a book published to mark Farmers' anniversary, business historian Ian Hunter.

The name on the building may have changed more than once over the years, but the store itself has remained a mecca for Timaru shoppers.

The long history of retailing at Farmers stores around the country is detailed in Ian Hunter's book, Farmers, Your Store for 100 Years, released last week to mark the department store's 100th anniversary.

Dr Hunter, an associate professor in business history at Auckland University, spent 18 months with a team of people researching, visiting every Farmers store in the country and talking to more than 100 people about their links with the store.

"Letters poured in, old catalogues – we've got a couple of rooms full of Farmers memorabilia. Farmers are looking at making a more permanent home for it."

He says Timaru's store is a good example of the connection that towns, especially the likes of Oamaru, Timaru and Dunedin, have had with their department store. While the names on the buildings changed, the stores that were landmarks for generations of customers remained.

"Like many other South Island locations, the Farmers store in Timaru has been a shopper's mecca for well over a century."

Farmers was founded in Auckland in 1909 by Robert Laidlaw as a mail-order business called Laidlaw Leeds, supplying rural communities outside Auckland and around New Zealand. The store would not do business with customers living within 10 miles (16 kilometres) of the Auckland central post office. Every day, about 70 blank cheques would accompany customers' shopping lists.

Laidlaw eventually expanded the business by opening a chain of retail stores across the country, and in 1918, it merged with a farming co-operative as The Farmers Union Trading Company.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the company acquired numerous competing chains, including Haywrights, and in 1970 it acquired Calder Mackay, officially making Farmers the biggest department chain in the country.

The Timaru store started out as the ornately styled drapery business of Thomas (Tommy) Thomson. Established in 1883 by Thomas and his brother James, the family firm passed in 1935 to Thomas' son Charles. Thomson's was bought by Hay's Ltd in 1961, and came under the Farmers banner in 1982.

"In the Farmers tradition, the Thomsons were showman retailers – they had Santa coming to Thomson's on the back of an elephant. They understood that retailing is all about excitement."

The store boasted a first-floor tearooms, like many others around the country, and it proved a popular drawcard for mothers and children.

"The mall has really superseded the department store having a tearooms, although there are a couple of Farmers stores that have them."

In the book, customer Leah White remembers it was a special treat for her two older brothers and herself to be taken to the cafe in the big Farmers department store in Timaru.

"One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is the three of us sitting there with a strawberry milkshake each, and when we'd got to the bottom, we'd make that terrible suction noise with the straw ... poor Mum would be so embarrassed, with all the "proper" people having their morning tea looking at us in disgust ..."

Competition in Timaru was fierce, with the town boasting the Canterbury Farmers Co-operative Association, McGraw and Davies, Beaths, Ballantynes and Woolworths.

A question Dr Hunter posed was why, among all the other retailers of the time, Farmers was the one that survived.

"There are a couple of answers. Innovation has always driven Farmers. They were the first to offer a money-back guarantee in New Zealand, and did it from day one in 1909, the first to offer self-service shopping, the first to have a free customer car park in Australasia, and they had the first Santa Parade.

"They used the excitement and pizzazz of retailing to keep them at the forefront, so the others became followers, not leaders."

During World War II, the company paid income tax in advance to help the war effort, and at the time of the Wahine disaster, opened its doors to clothe the survivors.

Dr Hunter says it has been a wonderful journey visiting stores and talking to people around the country.

"You can't write about this unless you live it a bit.

"When you go face to face with an old customer, a lady in her late 80s who has been doing business with Farmers all her life, and still receives deliveries from the Farmers manager, you suddenly get it."

The Timaru Herald