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The Costco Question: What’s A Shop For?

By Tim Wilson, Executive Director, Maxim Institute*

With the arrival of our fourth son Otto, household routines were beautifully detonated. Should you be a parent (unless, mercifully, you’ve forgotten), you’ll know the upheaval: joy, uncertainty, and sleeplessness: the salad of newborn life, all topsy turvy.

That hazy delight soured when my wife developed mastitis, a condition that—if untreated—can quickly escalate to blood poisoning.

Concerned, prescription in hand, I called our local chemist on a Saturday afternoon, “Can you stay open until I get there, please?”

“Of course, Tim,” came the answer. Relief flowed.

Well-named, the Onehunga Family Pharmacy and owner Ross Mudafar are threads in the fabric of our lives. Ross knows his customers by their first names. He asks about our families and listens when we reply. The store also serves a vital community function as well as making a profit.

Last year there were two pharmacies on the main street; now, only Ross’s remains. Blame COVID in part, which savaged small businesses. But last November, fierce competition materialised off the main drag: a Chemist Warehouse. The other store had been open for almost 50 years; it shut within five months of the wholesale chain opening.

Under pressure, Ross reconfigured his business. Culling the cosmetics, moisturisers and vitamins of yore, he refocused on medications. Wise move. Last year, for the first time in a decade, the number of businesses that closed beat the number that opened.

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Given that small businesses (those with 20 or fewer employees) comprise 97% of all firms, almost a third of employment, and contribute a quarter of our GDP, we’re talking about a significant social impact. Philosopher Edmund Burke wrote of “little platoons” that animate civil society, a phrase that may also describe Ross and his customers.

Ross recognises this. “For us as a small business, service was everything,” he says, “That time highlighted the importance of our community connections. So we doubled down on them.”

What is a shop for? With the deluge of publicity surrounding the arrival of international cost-cutter Costco here, it’s a helpful question. Some analysis centres on price points. Go if you want cheap toilet paper and frozen veggies, one expert concludes; others suggest that the savings (which are significant) don’t result in fatter wallets on exiting; shoppers simply spend more.

What’s not been noted is the relational lens that many consumers use to evaluate shopping decisions. Sure, it’s cheap, but is that all I get? Loneliness around the world has increased post-COVID. And it’s not going away; before COVID, those most affected by loneliness in Aotearoa New Zealand were the young.

Ross, his staff, and clientele have defined their interaction beyond a transaction. In some sense, it’s no surprise that this is key to his shop’s survival. Some suggest that COVID has made us less materialistic, something Ross intuited before the pandemic. “We’ve been here for more than a decade,” he states, “our customers are like family.”

So what’s a shop actually for? Society and needs that are wider and deeper than a price-point.

*Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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