BusinessJuly 3, 2024

Dunedin’s Kmart is back from the dead


For four long years, Dunedin has been without a Kmart. Hera Lindsay Bird marks its return.

When the Meridian Mall Kmart closed back in 2020, citing earthquake-strengthening requirements, a shadow fell across the city.

It was a grim time for Dunedin. Two local tour guides even went so far as to organise six-hour “girlie bus” trips to the Invercargill Kmart complete with champagne and karaoke. After four long years, a new location was announced, and Kmart opened last Thursday in South Dunedin to “screaming fans”, some of whom had been waiting since 5am. Never underestimate the power of a promotional gift bag. 

On a rainy Monday afternoon, I spent several hours there and went home $17 poorer.  

Unless you’re an East German dissident in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, there’s something fundamentally depressing about attending a chain store opening. But even at 11am on a bitterly cold Monday morning, four days after the official opening, there was real festivity in the air. The store was packed. Say what you like about Kmart but the demographics speak for themselves. If you want an unbiased cross-section of the New Zealand shopping public, there is no better place to look. Elderly couples testing out mini exercise bikes. Young parents and their babies, staring beatifically up at the neon lights. Mothers and university-aged daughters, shopping for rubber houseplants. Teenage goths buying elephant figurines. An old white guy with an enormous tattoo on the back of his hand that just said “NZ”. Even the staff had an air of nervous intensity, like performers on the opening night of a sold-out play. 

Kmart is a bad place for eavesdropping. The shelves are too well insulated with multipack tennis balls and Paint Your Own Flowerpot kits. But as any junior advertising executive knows, don’t listen to what people say, look at what they buy. An extremely elderly woman carefully examining the men’s fluorescent camouflage underwear, with anthropological curiosity. A middle-aged American couple buying matching yoga mats. An old man pushing a perfectly empty shopping cart around the store for almost an hour, with an air of godlike serenity. 

Toasted sandwich makers were a popular purchase. As were jumbo bags of crystal-clumping cat litter. Air fryers were vanishing from the shelves faster than staff could restock them 

I was surprised by the abundance of community spirit. The store was packed with people who had run into old friends and colleagues and were gossiping in the aisles like they were at the village fete in an Agatha Christie novel. A group of university-age guys hooted and hollered in the camping section. A group of teenage girls clustered around the rabbit slippers, which they described as “bougie” and “slay”. At least two elderly men had clearly misplaced their wives, and were searching around in growing agitation, like one of a pair of breeding albatrosses at the end of the nesting season. 

We’ve all been hearing about “the death of third spaces” and the decline of community centres in the last few years. Is Kmart the new third space? I found myself wondering, as I lurked in the cutlery aisle, watching two Buddhist monks examining a rack of silicone pastry brushes. 

The shop grew busier. The aisles filled with high school students, either bunking off school or on their lunch breaks. It became harder to resist the urge to shop. I wanted a great number of things. An all-purpose multi-grater and dicer. A galaxy lamp nightlight. I was sorely tempted by a kid’s archaeology kit, with eight historical artefacts, including a pharaoh’s bust and a shark’s tooth you could excavate with a tiny brush and chisel. But after my 10th circuit, I started to feel immune. Who needs all this stuff, I thought. We should be supporting local businesses, not buying mass-manufactured crap that will only end up in a landfill. The world is burning and everyone is buying sea monkeys! 

South Dunedin, the site of the new Kmart, is a notorious flood zone and is predicted to be underwater one day, with rising sea levels. But there’s no point in being too sanctimonious. In a cost of living crisis, many people can’t afford their monthly power bills, let alone artisanal washing baskets. Kmart was packed with university students, buying bed sheets and bamboo side tables, and who can blame them? The op shops are increasingly empty. All the nice furniture has vanished into the homes of ageing millennials. Of course, part of the reason for the death of op shops is the abundance of stores like Kmart, selling products with a limited lifespan. But you can no longer decorate your first flat with $100 and a trip to the Salvation Army. 

Besides, convenience isn’t the whole story. Part of the thrill of Kmart is, unlike the Warehouse, it doesn’t just sell you things you need, like buckets and gumboots. It sells you things you didn’t know you wanted, like a tiny $3 electronic milk frother. Like many women over a certain age, I have a yearning for storage solutions. Maybe I do need a set of self-stacking transparent fridge cubes, I found myself thinking. Maybe I would drink more water if I bought a bottle with inspirational messaging like “hydrate yourself” and “keep chugging”. Kmart gives people what they want, and what people want is mindfulness colouring-in books and ombre pet puffer vests. 

The queue for the checkout was as long as the line for the Matterhorn at Disneyland. But it moved surprisingly quickly. Behind me was a group of old women, who had clearly met up for a special shopping trip. It was only July, but they were already preparing for Christmas. When I left, they were examining a large rack of Pokemon plushies, and naming them with perfect taxonomic accuracy. “That’s Jigglypuff,” one of them said knowledgeably as I departed for the next vacant till. 

On the way back home, I passed by the South Dunedin shops, which were deserted. But it’s not fair to draw any kind of moral conclusion from that. The South Dunedin shops are always deserted. After the fluorescent intensity of Kmart, there was something pleasantly drab about them. An empty nail salon. An abandoned Grey Power. A cafe called Cafe Aroma. A hair salon called Tiz All Hair. A hunting and fishing store with windows full of decoy swans and ducks.

In the end, I didn’t buy the multi-dicer. I decided slicing your own onions is part of the joy of cooking. I did buy a six-pack of underwear ($15) and some chip-shaped clips to clip chip bags shut ($2). Not so much as a kitchen necessity. But as a kind of souvenir.  

Keep going!