Monday, April 30, 2012

McKenzie's: variety store of my memory

Wide Range of Articles From Which To Choose 
"WHAT to give?" is the puzzling problem of the moment, but for the wise shopper, all worry is eliminated by a visit to any store of J. R. McKenzie. There the problem is solved and the search ends! ALL tastes and all ages are catered for, and there are a thousand and one gifts, designed to please, from which a choice can be made. Whether it be for father, for mother, for sister or brother, or somebody else's sister or brother, at McKenzie's will be found the very thing that is wanted. Established throughout the length and breadth of the Dominion, J. R. McKenzie's have been able through mass buying to land in New Zealand probably a more comprehensive range of toys, general fancy goods, and other suitable gifts, than has ever been imported into this country, and these represent the very latest from the overseas markets. Value and genuine bargains, together with prompt and smiling service, are the features for which the J. R. McKenzie Stores have gained a reputation.
NZ Truth 11 December 1930

Leigh Kennaway sent the above image the other day, a photo he took of a piece of the past of Auckland's retail history, this one in Takapuna. Instant nostlagia for me, as I remember being entranced by the variety on the shelves at the Queen Street store, with the barker rallying up the customers to buy-buy-buy this or that special item. To me as a wee nipper at my mum's side, the place just seemed wonderful. A smaller version of the giant multi-storey Farmers. All just memories, now, lost to corporate takeover and changing times.

The stores began with one man: Sir John Robert MacKenzie, knighted in 1949. Born in Victoria, Australia 5 August 1876, he began his business career in Melbourne, after serving in the 2nd Boer War with the Third Victorian Bushmen's Contingent. In 1910, he moved to New Zealand after being impressed by the country while taking a cycling holiday in 1909. He started a shop in Dunedin which was to be the first of a chain of 75 stores nationwide by 1980.
In 1910 Mr. McKenzie opened the first McKenzie fancy goods shop in George Street, Dunedin, to be followed shortly afterwards by a similar shop in Christchurch. The first Wellington store opened in Willis Street in 1913, Wanganui branch being next in 1915. By 1929 the [firm] had 18 fancy goods shops in the various towns of New Zealand, from Auckland to Invercargill. During 1929 Mr. McKenzie decided to adopt the more modern trend of retail business by converting the business into the modern self-serving department stores. Today there are 21 McKenzie department stores in every large town, from Whangarei to Invercargill, and a total staff of over 650 is employed by the company throughout the Dominion. To commemorate the occasion of the firm's silver jubilee, Mr. J. E. McKenzie has authorised that one extra week's salary be paid to every member of the staff, this gift involving payment of approximately £1400. Last year the company donated £500 to charity, and this year the directors have allocated £1600 to this cause. 

Evening Post 24 October 1933

Evening Post 12 December 1913

Always on the lookout for improvements and developments, Si John's observations during a trip overseas led him to the revolutionary decision to change his fancy goods stores to the department type of store which was proving so successful overseas, and which would provide the average family with many of their main needs at reasonable prices.

The first experimental department store was initiated shortly afterwards in Cuba Street, Wellington. The change was completed in three years ...

Auckland Star 3 November 1962

In 1938, the business was registered as a public company. Sir John died in 1955, renowned as a philanthropist (the name living on in the J R McKenzie Trust) and a successful businessman.

View of High Street Lower Hutt, November 1956, from the footpath beside Hill Brothers grocery store. Three women can be seen on the pavement, one of whom wheels a baby pram towards the camera. Photographed by Morrie Hill. Ref 1/2-177164-F, Alexander Turnbull Library.

By 1979, however, the business came to be controlled by a company called Rangatira Ltd, holding 52% of the shares. In July that year, Rangatira accepted a takeover bid by L D Nathan & Co, Ltd, owners of the Woolworths brand of variety stores in the country.  With "an air of quiet acceptance", although with unfavourable comments nonetheless from a shareholder and former McKenzies employee, the final meeting of McKenzies (NZ) Ltd was held on 20 July 1979. The stores all became part of Woolworths (a chain established here in 1929) -- I remember them as well, but they didn't hold the same magic for me. "Woolies" drifted away during the late 1980s-early 1990s.

I took this photo in June last year, the upper Symonds Street branch of McKenzies, which opened in late 1938.

If anyone else has any images or memories of the stores they'd like to share, feel free to contact me.


  1. Interesting article. McKenzies is one of those few things that I have no recollection of at all. I've been meaning to get around to doing a story on Self Help as well as Four Square (I did one on Fuller-Fulton last year).

  2. There was a McKenzies in Palmerston North where I grew up.
    My aunt worked there for a while, and once each school holiday - as a "special treat" - she'd take us to McKenzies' tearooms for a lunch.
    My mum would also bring home a selection of sweets from the "pick'n'mix" lollies stand at McKenzies.

  3. This story reminded me of other big stores I was taken to as a child - e.g. John Court's, Milne & Choyce, Smith & Caughey, Farmers'. The latter was, as I remember it, a huge place with a children's fairground on the top floor. I imagine there's an interesting history behind this Auckland icon. I wonder whether it still exists - whether any of them still do.

  4. Only Smith & Caughery survives in anything like its traditional format in the central city. Farmers in the city is now a hotel, Milne & Choyce was bowled if I recall correctly, and John Courts is now Whitcoulls and apartments.

    1. Thanks for the update. I'm clearly out of touch. A visit to my old hometown is probably long overdue.

  5. I would shop at S & C right until the end of the 1980s.

  6. The Queen Street Milne & Choyce building is still standing. It is a large Neo-Greek concrete building from the 1920s which has been called Centre Point for some decades. It stands directly next to the 1860s Bank of New Zealand Facade Building at the Shortland Street intersection.

    In the 1980s when the octangonal BNZ tower was constructed the 1930s annex to the Milne & Choyce building was demolished. About six stories high it had been designed by R.A Lippencott.

    The top floor had a magnificant Art-Deco dining room called the tudor Room. It was very similar to the surviving Harbour View Room on the top of the Farmers Building [also by Lippencott)

  7. Interesting article thanks. Could someone help me ... I remember a cafe in wellington called The Londoner. I thought it was in the McKenzies store in Cuba Street but I could be wrong. Does anyone else remember it? It had large black and white photos of London sights around the walls.

  8. Comment accidentally deleted.

    "We even had a small McKenzies Mini store in Pahiatua for about 10 years 1972-82 "

  9. Arthur Barnett's is another one of those very few surviving stores from the early days. Perhaps S & C and Barnett's are the only two left.

  10. I remember McKenzies in Takapuna, North Shore, just opposite Woolworths which changed to Deka(I think). I can remember choosing an animal toy for xmas, visiting it every day in the store before xmas. Ahhh distant memories. Karen

  11. I remember McKenzies was opposite Woolworths in Rotorua main St back in the 60s...we loved going to both stores and I can remember the pic ND mix lollies stacked high and we always bought our Christmas gifts there

  12. My nan worked in the stationary department at the willis street store from oct 1954-aug1955. I still have her work cert from them on the original stationary with the phone number 54-204 of the head office also in willis street.

  13. I have fond memories of McKenzies when I was a child. It was my all time favourite store. McKenzies was replaced by DEKA in Taupo... thank you for the memories....... :)

  14. I remember McKenzies in Symonds St and eyeing up which Barbie to get for my birthday

  15. Born in 1944, I grew up near Hamilton. Money was tight, but on our infrequent trips to the city, I would be given maybe 2 shillings, with which I invariably bought a small something for my mother from McKenzies. In those days McKenzies and Woolworths were both "5 & 10cent" type stores

  16. Its great to take a trip down memory lane with all the names of these great retailers, although you realise just how old you are lol

    I can remember as a child going to Farmers in Auckland and having lunch with my mother and riding tricycles and others toys in the bitumen play floor which covered almost all the top floor. Then there was the Santa with his moving finger and the great Farmers Christmas parade down Queen Street - great times as a child. Such a simple an innocent time way back then