The first part of the twentieth century was the heyday for the department store in New Zealand. The iconic department store, Hays, was a ‘household name’ in Christchurch from its inception in 1929 to its closure in 1982.
The brainchild of James Hay, the ex-advertising manager of both Ballantynes and Beaths, he dreamed of establishing a store based on the latest overseas retail trends. Unlike the established department stores of Ballantynes and Beaths which were situated in the heart of the commercial hub of the fashionable Cashel Street, his store would be north of the square, in the comparitive ‘retail backwater’ of Gloucester Street. His clientele would not be Christchurch’s more prosperous families but the less monied, who were looking for a ‘no frills’ service at low prices.
With the financial backing of an Auckland businessman, Jim Hay (1888-1971) opened Hay’s department store on Friday the 13th of December, 1929 with a staff of twenty nine. A few months later, the Great Depression hit New Zealand and literally ‘overnight’ people stopped spending. The struggle to remain operating through the store’s first lean years, were down to Hay’s innovative, retail ‘know how’ and keen ‘marketing eye’.
Jame’s advertising slogan, “Hay’s – the friendly store where everything is different!” – was certainly true. Merchandise such as cosmetics, jewellery, clothing, accessories, fabrics, sewing material and equipment, household linen, china, furniture and toys was sourced from all around the world. It even stocked produce and food and installed a popular hairdresser and beautiful tearoom where weddings were often held.
Hays sold products at lower prices and promoted its genuine customer friendly, self service system by displaying goods for customers to browse through without the pressure of an assistant helping. He only accepted cash as a form of payment but rewarded customers with loyalty coupons which offered better deals on the shop’s annual birthday celebration. During the Depression, the store offered profits back to customers by introducing a Senior League discount scheme on May 21st, 1930. The huge membership which reached 42,000 members by 1950, helped the business to thrive.
Hay’s alluring window displays became synonomous with the shop. Designed to impress and entice customers in, extensive window displays presented goods with artistry while serving as advertisements for the store’s style and goods. Innovative promotions such as elephants from a touring circus to advertise a sale, were used. Christchurch expected the unusual at Hay’s, and were rarely disappointed.
They knew if a child’s experience at Hays was enjoyable, they would do a better job than any advertising to convince their parents to make Hays a regular shopping destination. Not only was there a large toy department but a wonderfully imaginative rooftop playground offering education as well as amusement for children. Trick mirrors, slides, a miniature train, a merry-go-round and holiday highlights such as waxworks, circuses and displays of animated mechanical animals or figurines were offered.
A childrens’ club called the ‘Junior League; was formed. Headed by a kindly aunt called ‘Aunt Haysl’ (his namesake) she would be a matriarchal figure who could be a real friend to all children. Aunt Haysl edited a magazine which featured her editorial, stories, competitions, original work sent in by Leaguers and advertised everything that was happening in the city. The league numbered 21,000 junior members in 1950 and the distribution of its paper hit nearly every school, as well as on buses, at fairs or entertainments.
One of the early activities on Hay’s Roof was the building of a huge fireplace where children could gather. Every Friday night, they were welcome to come and eat bread and saveloys, and drink billy tea from water boiled on the fire.
There were four Aunt Haysl’s until Edna Neville’s took over the role in 1944. She was the most loved aunt to thousands of children until her retirement in 1981.
End-of-season sales, when stock was cleared at reduced prices, were a huge attraction with crowds queuing from early in the morning. In 1948 the store began its annual Christmas parades featuring nursery-rhyme characters on floats – a tradition which is still celebrated today.
Huge crowds gathered to watch Wirth’s Circus elephants outside Hay’s Department Store after stopping to deliver concession tickets for Hay’s customers. After this parade, they made their way down Colombo Street to the Armagh Street corner in the direction of the Avon River. There they were dismounted and undressed of their garlands and allowed to cool their feet and drink from the river under the watchful eyes of hundreds of shoppers and lunch time workers. Afterwhich, they were then ridden back to the circus which was set up and performing at the time, on a site on Moorhouse Avenue.
In 1935-36, the store was expanded on either side and in 1938, Hay’s expanded onto Colombo Street. Now a successful department store, it occupied a large landmark corner site in a now prime location. Four years later, the 1910 Hayward building was purchased by Hay, allowing him to open up another frontage on Armagh Street.
A second store specialising in fashion was also opened in Greymouth on the West Coast of that year. In 1942, Hay’s purchased one half of the Rink Taxi building on Armagh Street, which gave another entrance opening onto Victoria Square. However due to the restrictions, the new addition could not undergo renovations. The second part of the building was secured in 1947 and more expansions saw the opening of a furniture and furnishing department, and refrigeration department in 1950.
During the Second World War the store’s window displays were often used to promote war loans and patriotic fund appeals.
Hay’s subsequently became Haywrights in 1968 and then Farmers in 1987. The old building was demolished in 1997, but the new Farmers department store is but a fraction of the size of its famous predecessor. Below is a portrait of James Hay and a view of one of its many divisions on the Colombo and Armagh Streets block. This was the building opening up onto Oxford Terrace Block in 1953. In the background, we see the Government Life building being constructed.
Mr Hay was reknowned for his generosity he showered on his staff He valued them and gave them a sense of being a team. A spirit of camaraderie was fostered by in-house social activities and sporting competitions against teams from other businesses. Christchurch’s Ballantyne’s store had a tramping club, as well as basketball, hockey, rugby, cricket, tennis and marching girls’ teams. Many staff members gave a lifetime of loyal commitment to Hays, although some advanced their careers by moving to other similar establishments. There was the possibility of promotion from junior sales assistant to a department buyer, manager, or floorwalker. Women usually resigned when they married.
Men and women followed rules of dress and conduct prescribed in the staff manual.
Over the next 30 years Hay’s popularity grew to become one of the South Island’s leading department stores. It adopted the slogan as ‘the friendly store’ and customer loyalty was fostered through a popular cash-discount stamp scheme.
Hays was elected to the Christchurch City Council in 1944, serving until 1953. He was the first chairman of the Canterbury Museum Trust Board (1948–54) and played a key role in persuading Canterbury’s local bodies to extend the museum in 1950, putting a great deal of personal effort into fund-raising. In 1959 he established the J. L. Hay Charitable Trust, and for 18 years he chaired a committee formed by the combined churches to raise funds for children’s homes.
In 1958, Hay turned his marketing skills to fund-raising for Christchurch’s new town hall. The objective was to provide a first-class concert auditorium and venue for conferences and events. The Victoria Square site was secured and construction begun before his death in 1971. Hay’s tireless efforts were more than any other individual had done to generate public support for this public building. His contribution was recognised by naming the James Hay Theatre after him.
In 1960, Hay’s opened Christchurch’s first suburban shopping centre at Upper Riccarton. Three years later, Hay retired from his position as managing director, however continued as chairman until 1967 and president of the company until his death. The store kept expanding with the development of the Northlands shopping centre in 1967.
In 1968, Hay’s merged with Wright Stephenson & Co to form Haywrights – New Zealand’s second-largest department store chain. By the late 1970’s, Farmers Trading Co. acquired most of its stores. Hay’s Roof closed in 1987, though the roof remained open as a playground for children until the demolition of the building.
James Hay died at his Christchurch home on 26th March, 1971, survived by his wife, two daughters and his twin sons David and Hamish (the latter of which became a city mayor).
From Hay’s modest and rocky start in the Gloucester Street during the Depression, this store eventually took over most of a city block as well as open branches in Greymouth, Ashburton, Oamaru and Dunedin. Although Hay’s is long gone, the nostalgia of the rooftop playground, Aunt Haysl, the League, the Christmas parades and floors of departments still remain in the older generations memories. ‘Aunt Haysl’, a favourite with thousands of Canterbury children, died on Waitangi Day, aged 96.