Commercial Bay was supposed to transform Auckland’s retail scene. Is it succeeding?

Three years after opening, we ask whether Aotearoa’s most ambitious retail development is delivering for shoppers, tenants, and the people at the top.

Commercial Bay came out swinging from the get-go

Construction began in 2016 on the site of the old Downtown Shopping Centre, an afterthought of a mall that occupied some of the most valuable real estate in the city, and whose main drawcard was the poor uni student’s holy grail of hangover food – a Wendy’s Shake ‘n’ Dog that would set you back a suspiciously reasonable $4.50.

Which is to say, hot shot developers Precinct Properties NZ didn’t have to do much to revolutionise the downtown retail scene. Even so, they set the bar sky high, promising to literally shift the experiential axis of the Auckland CBD from its traditional north-south Queen Street route, to an east-west experience that celebrated the waterfront. It was a bold and exciting undertaking for which the city’s retailers and residents overlooked their hatred of road works, seeing the bigger picture at play.

By March 2020, the final touches were being put in place for Commercial Bay’s grand reveal. Then, before it could open its doors, Covid arrived in NZ, plunging the entire country into level 4 lockdown. 

It eventually opened in June 2020 – a softer launch than anticipated, with travel restrictions between regions still in effect, as well as closed international borders and, crucially, a ban on the cruise ships that were always going to be one of its most reliable meal tickets. But by the most important metrics, Commercial Bay did phenomenally well. In its first four days of trading, some retailers had achieved their month’s target.

For the next two years, businesses were beholden to ever-changing alert levels (including an economically devastating 100+ day lockdown in Auckland from August-November 2021), as well as a lack of tourism, and changes to household spending habits prompted by pandemic-related belt-tightening. In the face of these nightmare conditions, the big dogs behind this 1 billion dollar development four years in the making rose to the challenge.

Not your average shopping mall

An a-typical start was somewhat fitting for Commercial Bay, given that it was never supposed to resemble your typical shopping mall. “It was designed to be an extension of the city, featuring a series of laneways connecting major public transport hubs and the waterfront,” says Andrew Trounson, Centre Retail Manager.

The link to transport was a crucial part of Commercial Bay’s original promise. Its would-be captive audience of cruise ship passengers and city-commuters was a – if not the – key drawcard for attracting retailers to the space. So given that this audience was the first to vanish and the last to return to normal numbers, Trounson’s focus shifted to supporting tenants and enticing local shoppers out of their bubbles.

Early on, Precinct Properties and Match Realty secured spaces for international juggernauts H&M, COS, Sandro, Maje, Furla, Hugo Boss, Husk, R.M.Williams, Asics, Mecca, General Pants and Aje, alongside local businesses Twenty-Seven Names, Elle + Riley, Scarpa, Superette, Wynn Hamlyn, I Love Ugly, Barkers, Just Another Fisherman, Asuwere and Yu Mei (the latter would be one of the only brands to shut up shop relatively quickly, seemingly in order to focus its attention on standalone Yu Mei Lounges in Newmarket and Wellington). 

The strong start was enough to attract Kate Sylvester, who had previously enjoyed long tenancies in Britomart and before that, High Street. It was a ringing endorsement of Commercial Bay’s sales figures and robust layers of support at a time when the generosity of one’s landlord could be the deciding factor of whether a business survived Covid, or not.

“Opening a retail precinct of this size in the middle of a pandemic was not easy”, says Trounson, somewhat understating things. “Covid affected the retail industry nationwide, but CBDs were probably impacted the most. So navigating trading restrictions and alert levels was tough to manage at scale.”

A surprising development 

Happily, retail has enjoyed a relatively unencumbered renaissance period since Auckland’s final burst of mercifully short-lived lockdowns in early 2022. And when all Covid restrictions were lifted last September, an increase in foot traffic led to significant sales uplifts. In the case of contemporary New Zealand designer Wynn Hamlyn, the right amount of brand equity and upfront leg-work had additional benefits.

“People take the brand a lot more seriously now,” says founder and designer Wynn Crawshaw, listing off the ways his Commercial Bay store has impacted his brand’s perception, and sales figures.

Crawshaw shares that online orders saw a notable increase upon opening his first brick and mortar shop front. He puts this down to people being able to finally try on his designs, but also the visibility factor. “It’s legitimised the brand. Customers understand that there’s a real label here that exists offline, in the real world,” he says.

Relying on tourism has never been a core part of Wynn Hamlyn’s sales strategy, or a visible driver of the brand’s success. Instead, the store’s core customers remain locals who appreciate having a small, unintimidating, easy-to-access space where they can pop in and try on things they’ve seen online, often discovering a whole new side of the range that they would’ve just scrolled past in a digital lookbook.

Describing the space as a ‘brand portal’, Crawshaw notes that, “It’s easy to make anything look good online, but a huge element of our product offering is very intricate and craft based. And that’s always going to be much better received by viewing the clothes in person.” 

Other less-tangible aspects of the boutique have also played a part in winning over new customers. Retail staff aren’t just Sunday shift-pickers; they’ve all been trained in the Wynn Hamlyn workroom, so carry an intimate knowledge of the clothes and the values behind the brand. Back this up with a small but impeccably-curated space informed by Crawshaw’s early career as an architect, and what the store represents is a clever investment in branding and face-to-face customer relations.

“Doing what we wanted to do, both creatively and artistically, was a non-negotiable for us,” says Crawshaw, adding that Commercial Bay “was incredibly accommodating of that”.

The clustered halo effect

Few know more about the power of a physical space than Georgie Clatworthy – luxury retail project leasing expert, and director of Match Realty. Georgie may not be a household name, but you’ll be familiar with her work. This is the woman who brought some of the biggest luxury fashion houses in the world to Auckland, including Prada and Dior’s Queen St flagships.

Adept at balancing the collective and individual needs of stakeholders with a cohesive vision, you could call Georgie one of the curators of Commercial Bay.

“Brands co-cluster fairly naturally,” says Georgie on the subject of securing the right mix of retailers for Commercial Bay. “They have a firm view as to who they wish to be adjacent to. Many of those we approached were seeking a cohesive retail environment of like-minded retailers.” Spatial requirements were also at the top of everyone’s list (every square metre must be productive to justify sharp rents) and of course, world-class interiors.

Consulting on the project for five years, Georgie’s footprint is all over Commercial Bay. Between drawing up endless layouts, plotting out major blocks for behemoths like H&M and COS, running the numbers on rental feasibility and drafting out and refining lease agreements ad-infinitum, every aspect of the Commercial Bay experience from the mix of brands to the intuitive flow of foot-traffic is owed in part to her meticulous planning and expertise.

The brand mix was arguably its saving grace during those tough pandemic years. Says Trounson: “I think the appeal for our customers has come down to the combination of international fashion brands such as Hugo Boss, Kate Spade, Dior and Aje, sitting alongside renowned local fashion designers such as Kate Sylvester and Wynn Hamlyn. It’s a unique offering for a shopping centre precinct.”

Rewiring retail

A clear indicator of Commercial Bay’s success is the way it has quickly trained shoppers to venture into a part of the city they’d written off for decades. Back in the day, the first barrier was its inaccessibility (shout-out to whoever made the call on Commercial Bay’s dirt cheap, Viaduct-adjacent parking and valet service). Another major threat was the mainstream appeal of its closest competitor, Westfield Newmarket, whose shiny remodel completed a year before Commercial Bay gave the former a solid headstart in winning the loyalty of Auckland’s more affluent consumer base.

But here we are reminded of Commercial Bay’s original premise, which turned out to be its trump card. Conceived from the get-go as something that would feel more like an art gallery than a shopping mall, Commercial Bay was never designed to be a mainstream shopping destination. Its design DNA was unmistakably Aotearoa, but its execution was international in style and scale. This didn’t just apply to the impeccable fit-outs of its design-led boutiques, but its emphasis on extended trading hours rarely seen in New Zealand.

“The city has traditionally been a weekday trading environment and we set out to change that”, says Andrew Trounson, who masterminded Commercial Bay’s at-times improbable journey to becoming a vibrant, 7-day retail and high-end dining destination.

“It’s been amazing to witness that fundamental shift in trading habits, and particularly for the space to be humming every weekend with locals and tourists turning out in numbers for both daytime and evening trade. Commercial Bay has well and truly achieved its goal of setting a new benchmark in the industry, and after a challenging start is New Zealand’s must-visit retail and hospitality destination.”

The proof of its success is the waitlist of high-calibre brands wanting a piece of the Commercial Bay pie. This month, Moochi moves in, and Trounson remains thrilled by the growing interest.

For others in the retail development arena, it’s a lesson in playing the long game, believing in your vision, and sticking to it as you navigate the unavoidable twists and turns.

There are no quick wins, but with the right people and the right mindset, there needn’t be long-term losses, either.