New Zealand / Local Democracy Reporting

Whakatāne virtual mall offers boost for retail in lockdown

20:03 pm on 11 May 2020

Innovation has come in the midst of Covid-19 and Whakatāne is leading the way with New Zealand's first regional virtual mall.

Whakatane's main street. Photo: Whakatā

The online mall, allowing customers to shop at every business in the CBD, is the brainchild of EPIC Whakatāne Town Centre.

EPIC board chair Warren Short said that during alert level 4, the board had put a lot of thought into how it could help its members grow their online profiles so they could maximise opportunities when New Zealand moved into alert level 3.

The group believes it has produced New Zealand's first virtual mall.

"We needed a new platform that would endure as we enter a new world of how we do business," Short said.

"The virtual mall solution would provide a shopping experience and allow retailers and service providers to move their business online. Their own e-commerce websites would be linked to the virtual mall but have a unique domain name and feel."

Short said the response from retailers had been "fantastic" and 50 local businesses had registered already.

Within an hour of its launch, the site recorded more than 300 visits and the first sale was completed within two hours.

The initiative has the support of the Eastern Bay Chamber of Commerce and Whakatāne District Council.

"This is a combined CBD business approach that will help us stand out," Short said.

"This virtual mall complements the bricks and mortar business in the CBD. It aims to create a seamless process for businesses to register and start selling to a community of shoppers quickly and easily.

"We hope this initiative will help Whakatāne become one of NZ's most digitally advanced online selling business communities."

EPIC has used a portion of the CBD targeted rate to develop a website and digital communication channel. The additional cost to a business to register on the virtual mall is $99 plus GST.

Customers can choose to shop online by store or product type. They can purchase from several retailers using only one shopping cart.

Payments go directly to the store owners so they can manage the fulfilment process themselves.

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Whakamax cinema owner Nick Milne said it was cool for Whakatāne to be ahead of the curve and to open the first regional virtual mall in New Zealand.

"It's super easy to use and gives businesses a simple way to get online and into e-commerce, even if it's new for them," he said.

"I think it shows how forward-thinking and progressive some of our talented local business community are."

Milne said the site was more suited to retailers selling physical products, but the cinema would be using it as a space to promote its vouchers as an "awesome, local experimental, giving option".

Rosita's owner Julie Jukes said the online mall was a "fabulous initiative" and provided further support to the concept of buy local.

She said it provided a very cost-effective way for businesses to bring their storefronts online and was an easy platform for customers to use and find items they liked, even without knowing the specific store name.

Jukes said she was surprised at how much she had sold over Facebook during lockdown and the online mall could only build on that.

Womens' shopping experience

Jean & Pete owner Stacey Murray said the virtual mall was a really good idea and would be great for businesses that did not yet have an online presence.

Her store was one of the first to be listed on the site and she found the EPIC team very receptive to feedback on how women liked to shop online.

"It is mostly men who created the site," Murray said.

"I did have to point some things out on how women like to shop, but they were very receptive to that. I think the site will change a little as it grows. But it's great."

A business owner who did not want to be named said he was pleased to see EPIC doing something that would benefit the businesses funding it.

"The online shopping platform is a brilliant redeeming action from the otherwise intangible entity that EPIC was," he said.

"Especially since the country is still in the non-contact shopping phase, for however long this plague continues. [I'm] looking forward to what else will follow this digital domain."

Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the Newspaper Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.

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