Iconic Invercargill store H&J Smith looks to close its doors after over a century, hundreds of staff to lose jobs

A huge 220 jobs are on the line as Southland institution H&J Smith department store looks to close its doors by Christmas.

After serving the Invercargill community for more than a century, COVID-19 and a change in shopping habits have finally caught up with it.

For the past 123 years, H&J Smith's flagship store has been an integral part of Invercargill. 

"H&J's is a real Southland institution," Southland Business Chamber CEO Sheree Carey said.

But the department store's days could be numbered.

The H&J Smith Group is proposing to close its doors by Christmas. 

"It's been a tough week. I'm feeling very hurt inside by having to go through this process but I've been incredibly supported throughout it and the team inside are hurting very much as well," managing director Jason Smith said.

It is citing an evolving marketplace, supply constraints, changing shopping preferences and a global shift away from the traditional department store model.

"COVID has accelerated a lot of changes in the market and those are starting to bite now and be realised now," Smith said.

The aging building is a stark contrast to the new retail development next door. 

The flagship store needs significant remedial work to be done to bring it up to national building standards. It's made up of 12 different buildings all built at different times with different seismic ratings, making the job complex and costly.

Although the business is still trading positively, COVID is having an ongoing impact.

Several of their other stores have already closed, leaving just Gore, Queenstown and Invercargill.

The closure would impact 220 staff, the vast majority of them in Invercargill. 

"There might be a lot of long-term employees ready for retirement, but you take the other ones out of that equation and you put that into a recession environment and you take one income out of the family in times like this, it's going to hurt," Carey said.

But Invercargill has the lowest unemployment rate in New Zealand and a huge skills shortage. Carey said finding work shouldn't be hard. 

"We'll work closely with MSD and their response team about where we can redeploy and upskill," Carey said.

Staff have been invited to make submissions over the next month. Locals are feeling it too. 

"It'll be a loss and all them workers will be losing jobs, won't they," one said.

"It's sad because it's been a real icon for the area and it's been a nice shop. You could get most things there," said another.

But Smith said they don't think the business will be sustainable in five years.