By Brian Lamont
Retired Christchurch grocer Colin Johnson has been admitted into the Retail NZ Hall of Fame – one of the highest honours that anyone can receive in the retail business. Admission is based on exemplary business and personal integrity, extraordinary devotion to the craft of retail; and inspiration and encouragement provided to those currently employed in the sector.
When he retired last year, Colin had worked for 60 years in retail, and in that time only in two shops. His grocery store was an icon in the Christchurch CBD.
Colin started work as a grocery delivery boy working for his father, Stan, even before he left school. He left school to join his father in the grocery business trading from 787 Colombo Street, Christchurch. They worked together in the shop for 40 years and slowly watch similar groceries close or become convenience stores. When his father retired he carried on in the business by himself working six days a week supported by family and a few old retired grocers.
Johnson’s Grocery never lost its appeal to locals and to tourists as it remained the traditional grocery shop with a point of difference that people loved: great service, a great range of local and exotic product stocked high on rickety shelves fetched by way of a rickety old ladder. Product included escargots and truffles from France, haggis and whisky marmalade from Scotland, pomegranate molasses from Lebanon and all customers were warmly greeted and served by a grocer in a traditional white smock apron.
As a sole trader the grocer provided his own security and would take on anyone he spotted stealing from his shop: on a few occasions he was even seen chasing shoplifters down Colombo Street. While we wouldn’t recommend direct action by shopkeepers these days, Colin typically caught the thieves himself. On one occasion during a scuffle, the hapless thief was run down, had his shirt ripped off and ended up winded on the ground with members of the public sitting on him until the police arrived.
Colin would have sold the business and retired from his grocery shop on Colombo St if not for the Canterbury Earthquake which devastated the shop and stock in February 2011. A Press article that year read ‘He survived the earthquake and staggered out of a crooked shopfront covered in tomato chutney which people mistook for blood’.
At the time of the earthquake, Colin was in his 70s, but despite losing his shop and all of its stock in the earthquake, retirement was not on his mind. He became the first tenant of the Re-Start container Mall and was back up and trading by the end of October. In fact he says the four and a half year that followed were the best of his career.
During this time he was inspirational to the retail community which was struggling to reestablish the CBD following the earthquake. The community loved how Johnson’s Grocery reinvented itself in a container and was flourishing.
His container was nestled amongst a number of modern and edgy Brands on one side and Ballantynes Department Store on the other. The Ballantyne family were amazed at the foot traffic and conversion rate achieved by Johnsons’ Grocery and wanted to know his secret. Customers young and old made the shop a destination for treats not available elsewhere.
A highlight was to watch the enthusiastic grocer add up your purchases on the outside of a brown paper bag faster than you would be able to scan the barcodes. Also a feature was the displays of exotic goods stacked high and the delivery bicycle that sat in the window or just outside the door in mint condition, I later discovered that this was the original delivery bicycle ridden by Colin as a delivery boy … and it’s never had brakes!
Johnson’s Grocery was an iconic part of the retail landscape for decades. His store is now part of history, but we hope that his induction into the Retail NZ Hall of Fame will ensure that his fame lives on, and that his story will inspire others to create memorable and lasting retail experiences.
Brian Lamont is the Christchurch-based Director of Retail NZ, an industry association representing the retail sector.