16 Dec 2015

Kirkcaldie's Christmas farewell

From New Zealand Society, 3:30 pm on 16 December 2015
Kirkcaldie & Stains sign

Photo: RNZ / Sonia Sly

Farewells are never easy, but after 152 years in business it's time for Kirkcaldie and Stains to say goodbye.

It's a store that has maintained many of its traditions, including the reintroduction of a doorman in 1998, Christmas windows and as always, a strong emphasis on quality customer service.

Sonia Sly finds out what life has been like for some of the longest standing members of staff and what they'll miss about the iconic Wellington store.

Kirkcaldie's Santa

Photo: RNZ / Sonia Sly

The bottom line, according to Santa Claus, is this: “You can’t have two Santa’s in the shop at the same time.”

There might be three Santa’s all up, but only two work on any given day, and they alternate in one-hour blocks. Professional Santas have it down like Christmas clockwork.

So says Des Culling, who, as Kirkcaldie and Stains’ longest running Father Christmas, has donned the red suit for seven years. Cullen loves the kids, but the feeling isn’t always mutual. “Sometimes the kids don’t want to come near me at all,” he says. “There’s lots of funny things [that happen]; sometimes my beard slips off. You have to be good with adults, too, because you get grandmas sitting on your knee for a photo sometimes.”

Fellow Santa of three years, George Sutton, says selfies with Father Christmas are popular, and - for the record - there are no rules as to whether kids can sit on Santa’s knee. He says it’s the look on the kids faces that make his job worthwhile. “I had one little boy come round the corner. His mouth dropped open, he just gazed at me, and he was jumping for joy.”

What will happen to these Santas when Kirkcaldie and Stains shuts its doors after a 152-year reign in Wellington?

Promotions manager Lyn Tait says there have been challenges in staying current while maintaining the store’s heritage brand in an ever-changing retail market. The store is renowned for embracing Christmas, but this year they debated as to whether they would even do a final Christmas window. As a parting gift to Wellington, they have. Tait points to the bare shelves and areas of dwindling stock sitting nestled amidst rows of lush green trees with shiny red baubles. She’s sad to say goodbye to the store, which has played a large part of her life over the past 28 years. It’s like family.

Buyer Mary Gray feels the same: she’s the longest-standing member of staff at the department store. With 35-years of experience on the shop floor, she has witnessed a shift from the days of using Lamson tubes (to send money upstairs) to the implementation of modern tills.

“The Lamson tubes broke down far less frequently than our very high tech tills,” she laughs. “I really do feel grief for the store. I’ve loved it.”

Kirkcaldie & Stains doorman Neville Wellbourn

Doorman Neville Wellbourn Photo: RNZ / Sonia Sly

The transition from old to new won’t just be a drastic change for the staff, says doorman Neville Wellbourn.

“It’s very, very sad [and] the customers feel very sad about it.”

Wellbourn has been with the company for a decade. Will he miss the green and red uniform? He shares a secret: he’ll be making make the transition from old to new, too; swapping his green and red trimmed coat and matching top hat for a brand spanking new suit.

“I’ve been fortunate to be appointed to David Jones [and] I’m in the process of being measured for their uniform, which will be in their corporate colours.”

That’s as much as Wellbourn can disclose for now.

For those customers who will miss the old store and seeing Wellbourn in his Kirkcaldie colours, there is currently a cardboard cutout of the doorman with a space where his face goes, so customer can take a final snap as a keepsake. For old time’s sake.

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