The great hybrid return to work: Queen Street, Auckland, retailers want workers back

Once the epicentre for busy office workers, Auckland’s Queen St all but cleared out over the past few months. Cherie Howie walks the so-called Golden Mile and finds desperate business owners eagerly awaiting customers’ return.

Every week Ivy Cao works 60 hours in her Queen St cafe for no pay, and slides about $3000 further into debt.

The Global Sandwich owner’s five full-time staff are long gone, let go after sales fell 70 per cent and the rent – reduced by her landlord only during level 4 lockdowns – still needed paying.

Cao and a single part-timer grind through each week to limit weekly losses to about $3000.

The desperate situation is taking a toll.

Cao’s eyes are red-rimmed and she didn’t want to have her picture taken for the Herald on Sunday story.

“I can’t sleep at night”, she says, when asked how she was coping.

“I get headaches.”

It’s late morning on a warm autumn weekday, but during the 15 minutes Cao speaks with the Herald on Sunday, no one enters the central Auckland cafe.

About 10 customers are expected for the lunchtime rush, that’s down from around 100 before Covid-19 restrictions and health advice kept people first in their homes and then, increasingly, in their home suburbs, and before the border was shut to tourists and foreign students.

Quarantine-free borders opened to vaccinated Australians and foreign students with valid visas this month and will open for vaccinated travellers from the roughly 60 visa-waiver countries on May 1.

And although some office workers have returned to the central city, many are still working from home eight months after the Delta variant outbreak sparked a 107-day lockdown in our biggest city, and the arrival of the fast-spreading Omicron variant in January further delayed back-to-the-office plans.

Office workers are expected to return to the city in increasing numbers after Easter, as community cases plateau below 2000 a day in Auckland.

But some employers are embracing hybrid working for their staff – or even permanent working-from-home arrangements.

For Cao, the future remains uncertain.

In business nine years, she’s not sure what she’ll do when her current lease – signed before the pandemic began – ends in a year.

“No one comes to the city now. If I didn’t have the lease, I’d probably close down.”

Others already have.

The Herald on Sunday counted more than 30 empty shop spaces on Queen St, between Aotea Square and Customs St.

Many were previously home to small businesses, but there were giants among them – The Warehouse Group’s electronics and appliances titan Noel Leeming vacated its mid-town shop on March 13.

Burger King and Wendy’s fast food chains have also shut branches in Queen St since the pandemic began, and McDonald’s moved its mid-town Queen St restaurant – the Golden Arches’ oldest in New Zealand – to a smaller site nearby in late 2020.

West of the Civic Theatre, a strip of eateries have a loves-me-loves-me-not vibe, with roughly every second one closed down.

A few doors from the former Noel Leeming site, Queen’s Jewellery owner Philip Lin has cut his opening hours as sales fall 60 per cent and he tries to keep staff on – all jobs have been saved so far, but hours cut.

“[We] used to be open 9am to 6.30pm two years ago. Now we’re 12pm to 6pm, sometimes shorter. And our neighbours do the same.

“There’s no business here.”

He’s owned the shop 20 years and is making a loss.

“Nobody can make a profit in the city centre.”

CBD businesses’ sales were down about 50 per cent, in contrast to their suburban counterparts, potentially 10 to 15 per cent up, Retail New Zealand chief executive Greg Harford said.

Istanbul Shawarma owner Ali Nazer doesn’t see himself as competing with suburbia, but he does want workers back in the city – for their own sakes, too.

“If we get tourists, students and office workers we don’t need [visitors] from the suburbs … and if people stay home, it’s not healthy – psychologically, physically.”

The daily take at his eatery opposite Aotea Square was down 50 per cent since the pandemic began and 40 per cent since the Delta outbreak began in August last year.

“A few times … I feel very sad. When you look down [Queen St] now, you can see the bottom, it didn’t used to be like that.

“I think the Government should look after Queen St the same as Queenstown.”

Auckland Council has also not helped, with on-street carparks making way for a pedestrian-focused upgrade which has already seen the four-lane CBD thoroughfare reduced to two lanes since April 2020.

Free car parking in the central city on weekends would encourage shoppers, Nazer says.

An unprecedented High Court action against the council over the pedestrianisation works on Queen St – which had included the installation of much-lamented, and now removed, plastic sticks to widen footpaths – was dropped in June after a settlement was reached with aggrieved landlords and small businesses.

The Wai Horotiu Queen St Project is mainly focused on widening paths to help separate pedestrians from bike and scooter riders so they can “co-exist safely”.

The upgrade will “rejuvenate Queen St” and drive the Covid-19 recovery, attracting visitors from the city, country and, eventually, the world, Auckland mayor Phil Goff said in December.

In Queen’s Arcade, near the bottom of Queen St, 10 of the 32 shops counted by the Herald on Sunday were empty.

Marbecks Records owner Roger Marbeck says two businesses neighbouring had shut, and one had moved to the suburbs, with “abysmal” foot traffic and the loss of tourists too much for some businesses – even with the arcade’s supportive landlord cutting the rent.

At Commercial Bay, Auckland’s newest retail, hospitality and commercial precinct a few minutes walk from Queen’s Arcade, fewer than half of 8000 workers were on-site, Scott Pritchard, the chief executive of the building’s owner Precinct Properties, said in February.

Selling online – and in new spaces, such as TradeMe – had been “our saving grace”, Marbeck says of the 88-year-old family business.

But he is clear on what has to happen, and fast.

“We just need the workers back.”

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