When Covid-19 closed the country’s borders, Dunedin’s Kmart also permanently shut its doors – and one local couple spotted a lifeline for their tourism business.
This article was first published on Stuff.
Champagne, a private show and a “bag boy” probably aren’t what come to mind when picturing a six-hour return bus trip from Dunedin to Invercargill. But that’s exactly what guests are treated to during Bex and Paul Tobin’s shopping trips to New Zealand’s southernmost Kmart.
When Dunedin lost its Kmart during the first Covid lockdown in 2020, the Tobins also happened to lose their income from the tourism industry, so they had to have a rethink. “Covid put a stop to all tourism … we were mainly doing tours for groups coming out of Australia, Canada and the UK, then suddenly it all stopped,” Bex Tobin says.
The couple were faced with closed borders and five empty vehicles. “We thought, we can’t financially keep them all … we had to really think outside the box.”
Meanwhile, the closure of Dunedin’s Kmart had come as a shock to locals. When Covid-19 alert levels lowered, the doors just didn’t re-open – the retail giant decided it wanted a new location. The nearest Kmart was in Invercargill, a three-hour trip south by bus.
“Then came the posts on Facebook. Oh yeah, people complained,” Tobin says. “I remember feeling awful reading the posts. So many people relied on Kmart … I thought, ‘What are some things I could potentially go and do? Take mums out, and still make a little bit of money?’”
Shifting their business to the domestic market was inevitable under the circumstances, but for the Tobins, organising trips to Kmart felt more like a public service. “It wasn’t just about the money, [it was] more like, ‘Let’s do something’. We had all been in lockdown, we couldn’t leave, people missed being around other people.”
Kmart had created one of their biggest gaps in the New Zealand market, as well as a population “devastated” by the void of affordable, trendy goods. Over the last two years the Tobins have averaged a shopping trip every two months, Covid-19 interruptions aside.
People coming on the trips often had lists of things to buy, including items their friends or relatives wanted to get from their nominated bus passenger. Most often it was clothes and birthday presents. And the trips were made fun, with karaoke on deck, nibbles, champagne and occasionally a singer and entertainers like doll maker Jan McLean.
The Tobins soon found their biggest problem was having enough space on the bus to fit all the purchases for the dozen or more people who went on each trip. “We had to put a luggage trailer on … do you believe they actually buy out an entire luggage trailer?”
Then came more messages, people wanting to book the van as a group trip with friends who wanted to go shopping but also have an experience along the way.
“The thing with Kmart is that it’s like the Warehouse, but on another level … you can’t get the same kind of affordable, trendy things from the Warehouse,” Tobin says. “It really made Invercargill like a whole destination, because they also have an H&J Smith … shops that Dunedin is lacking in.”
(The Dunedin branch of H&J Smith, which replaced the city’s long-running department store Arthur Barnett in 2015, closed in 2021.)
While Kmart does offer delivery services, Tobin says “it’s not the same” as going in person. For large items, delivery fees were more expensive than the fuel to get to Invercargill and back, or the $50 return fare with the Tobins.
Shopping trips to Invercargill weren’t their only new source of income, with the couple eventually expanding into domestic tourism and private bookings, but Tobin says the success of the Kmart trips had been motivating. Throughout this time, the couple’s BookATour business picked up more private bookings, and with the borders now open they have resumed their regular tourism work.
It was announced last week that Kmart is building a new store in South Dunedin, which Tobin describes as “incredible news”. An opening date is yet to be set, so while the shop is being built the pair will keep on running their six-hour return trips down south.