We review the entire country and culture of New Zealand, one thing at a time. Today Jesse Mulligan, former celebrity figurehead for the local anti-Bunnings campaign, takes a first look around New Zealand’s most controversial hardware store.
The new Bunnings is big and green with a sausage sizzle and a playground. In these respects it is like any other store in the chain and therefore, you would think, beyond review. But the new Bunnings and I have a complicated relationship.
Some years ago a nice lady at the Grey Lynn shops asked me to sign a petition against the proposed new Bunnings on the grounds that it would make our suburban streets impossibly crowded with cars, and ruin the character of the surrounding area. Given that the existing retail offering on Great North Road consisted of some dodgy car yards, two muffler shops and a Hirepool I wasn’t quite sure you’d be able to blame a new Bunnings for killing the hipster vibe, but like I said she was a nice lady and I was pleased to help her out.
Things escalated the following week when the NZ Herald ran a story about this neighbourhood opposition to the new store. Presumably looking to drum up conflict, the reporter had scanned the list of signatures for semi-famous names and illustrated the piece with a photograph of me, cunningly inserting a couple of comments from the petition in speech marks so it looked as though I had said them.
Suddenly I was the face of the resistance. A lot of people saw that article. I started getting approached in the supermarket by locals who wanted to shake my hand and congratulate me for standing up to corporate power. I was too embarrassed to tell them I’d just signed a petition without really thinking about it. I definitely didn’t tell them I was secretly looking forward to having cut-price water blasters within walking distance.
There were protests and community meetings and Environment Court objections. Somebody brewed a beer to help pay for costs. I bought some of it, and was widely congratulated again. Then Bunnings won the legal battle, and I got a new wave of praise: “You did all you possibly could,” somebody said to me once, at the chemist.
A lot of volunteers in our community had worked very hard to first oppose the development and then negotiate concessions around size, parking and delivery hours. As a resident I would benefit from all of these concessions, but I had done nothing to help. I didn’t feel guilty, but I could have done without the compliments.
It took bloody months to build. But now it is here, and on the occasion of a blown lightbulb I wandered over to check the place out. It is like any other Bunnings, though a bit smaller if anything. A new big box megastore is judged not on what it stocks but on what it doesn’t stock. Did I have any right to be indignant that they didn’t sell Gladwrap? My friend went there to buy brown paper the other day and was disappointed to hear they don’t have a craft aisle. But they really do have a lot of stuff.
The service staff are really, REALLY friendly, as if they’ve been told how much the neighbourhood is inclined to hate them and the only way to change that is by being ridiculously helpful. During my visit a customer pulled down a couple of decorative balloons and gave them to my daughters. “It’s okay, my husband works here,” she said.
There are a lot of staff. Like, they outnumbered the customers on the Saturday afternoon I visited. Having one or two uniformed helpers wait next to you while you shop makes you feel a bit like you’re at Harrods. There’s a guy employed in the carpark just to tell people where the empty spaces are.
I went in for one lightbulb and came out with four lightbulbs, two lamps, some colour swatches, a multiboard, a tin of varnish and two drillbits. Also a paintbrush.
I was worried locals would see me walking home with full shopping bags and think ‘what a traitor that guy is. Doesn’t he have any principles?’ but nobody seemed to notice or care. The only person judging me was myself, but it wasn’t crippling – just a gentle, ambient shame. Nothing a couple of fundraiser beers wouldn’t fix.
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– Jesse Mulligan
Verdict: lowest prices are just the beginning. There are also balloons and barbecued meat.
Good or bad: inconveniently good.
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