The bricks and mortar of our timeless shop are the cultural memories of a young country that saw everything from World Wars, to pandemics (both Influenza in the early part of the 20th century and COVID19 in the early part of the 21st century), from a Great Depression to a Global Financial Crisis. And along the way the growth and maturity of a fashion store on an island in the South Pacific – Aotearoa NZ.

The Thomas’s story in Marlborough began in 1912, when John Emlyn Thomas and wife Kathleen bought an empty shop in Blenheim and moved to a new life on the Wairau Plains.
Trading conditions were tough in a small town. John had come to New Zealand from the North of Wales, where he was born in 1880. Realising that opportunities for employment in his homeland were diminishing, he set forth to a new life on the other side of the world. Arriving in Wellington in 1910, John spent several months acquainting himself with his new environment, eventually accepting a position at a small drapery shop in Otaki.

During one of his regular trips to Wellington, John met a talented young retailer named Kathleen who shared his interest and skills in retailing and was employed at the time at Kirkcaldie & Stains. The move to Blenheim followed not long after, but that trip in itself was to be marked by catastrophe, as all of their worldly possessions were burnt to a cinder when the shed at Queens Wharf in which they were stored was consumed by fire.
Thus, the beginnings of Thomas’s in Blenheim delivered a few moments of adversity for the young couple, but they built their name in business, their customer base and their product range steadily over the years.

John and Kathleen’s son, Terence, anticipating the retirement of his father, would eventually take over the store. Starting on two pounds and ten shillings per week, Terence soon got stuck into the family business and Thomas’s in Blenheim had found some new momentum in the tenacious young salesmen – just in time for the business, the retail sector and the world to be faced with some serious adversity.


The Great Depression was triggered in 1929, when the New York stock market crashed. The economic and social effects rippled rapidly around the Western world. New Zealand was vulnerable because it depended on Britain buying its agricultural exports. As export earnings plummeted, farmers stopped spending – with drastic effects. Jobs and wages were slashed, and soon many families were desperate.

Next, the retail industry in New Zealand was thrown into pandemonium by the government of 1938 when strict import controls were imposed. The next year, the business was to face a major challenge when founder John Thomas was struck down with a serious attack of pneumonia, dying one week later. Given this, Terence attempted to persuade brother-in-law Austin Andrews to leave The National Bank and join Thomas’s.

"Impossible,” he declared, "my career is in banking;” two weeks later, he resigned. Austin’s wife Ellie and Terence’s sister Patricia also joined the team, and plans were made for a vibrant, innovative and profitable future. All these plans were scuppered soon after however, when World War Two was declared in September 1939. Thomas’s had 6 male members of staff at the time, 3 of whom served overseas during the war.
Terence Thomas recalled it as a ‘time of awful apprehension,’ with shortages of all kinds, immense difficulties in obtaining stock and new, inexperienced management in place, he gave credit however for the survival of the store to his mother and sisters, as well as staff members Mrs Lillian Healy and Mr E Duffy.

Due to a lack of goods, it was a long time after World War Two before the business returned to any sort of normality. This lack did give the Thomas’s team time for planning though, in 1956 Terence and his wife travelled to London and returned convinced that the major part of the store’s future was in high end fashion apparel. Sometime later, Thomas’s entered a nationwide window dressing competition, and the display produced by Display Manager Neville Vercoe won first prize. Terence and Neville travelled to Wellington to be presented with a silver tray, and, as Terence recalled in 1994, ‘we were on our way!’


In the mid-sixties, Terence decided that the focus for the business should upgrading the fashion image of their merchandise. He obtained access to several well-known names that were to become vital to Thomas’s operation, as demand for their high quality apparel began to extend beyond the boundaries of Marlborough.

Then, in a case of history repeating itself in 1964, Terence’s son Michael joined the team at Thomas’s. Michael had spent a year working for James Smith Ltd in Wellington and two working for public accountancy firm after finishing his secondary school years there. His arrival coincided with an extended period of consolidation and planning.
In the early seventies, having seen that the growth and modernisation of the ladies apparel section had not been matched in the rest of the store, a major restructuring job was undertaken. Indeed, renovations and the constant refreshment of displays, layouts and presentations became a habit for Thomas’s over these years, as presenting a fashion image to customers was a prime consideration, as was providing a premier shopping experience for people to enjoy.

The next major hurdle for Thomas’s to overcome though was the revolution in the retail market that was wrought through the deregulation of the mid-eighties. It changed the whole way retailing worked; before deregulation, tight import controls meant that no retailers could establish a real point of difference from their competition, with the same products on shelves across the country.
Deregulation changed all that, and it was immediately obvious to the Thomas’s team that establishing a point of difference for their store was an objective of paramount importance. Pushing the envelope though was nothing new for Thomas’s, as Michael Thomas points out.

"We made the decision to re-build part of the store,” he says, "and move into a more fashionable and exclusive part of the market, rather than get involved in price wars with department stores. A lot of our customers were looking for something different, and so this is what we sought to provide.”

Thomas’s new reputation took 2 or 3 years to re-establish in the local market – the changes can be seen in hindsight as a resounding success, as it is still totally owned and operated by the Thomas’s family, which is a very rare situation in this day and age.


The ownership of Thomas’s is now in the hands of Michael’s sons, Hamish and Tim Thomas. With a division of labour keenly split between the two, with Hamish taking on the creative and marketing direction of the company, and Tim steering the financial ship through some of the toughest economic waters of recent memory.

Following the global financial crisis in 2008 and the migration of customers to shopping online, the profitability and prospects of bricks and mortar retail businesses – especially a provincial department store based in a single region – appeared to be ever dwindling as more family owned retail businesses began closing their doors for good.

Despite the changing tides, Hamish and Tim decided to upset the apple cart with a new business model, and in the early 2000s Thomas’s Marlborough focused their energies on investing in an emerging niche market of sustainable, ethical and high quality brands – and especially New Zealand made or designed products. A terrible idea if you are focused on the fiscal survival of a company, when most goods could be made cheaply overseas and sold for bigger margins.
A potentially fatal move in a world of smart phone bargain hunters, but the gamble paid off as consumers shifted to making ethical choices with their wallets. Both Hamish and Tim say they have seen a greater demand from customers wanting to know how and where their products are made with many seeking out quality over quantity, slow fashion over fast fashion, and ethically made products over mass-produced ones.

Hamish and Tim’s personal values for sustainability shifted further into their operations with their new paperless office and customized green recycling system. But the store and the retail sector would be thrown another blow when a little known infectious pathogen called COVID19 would suddenly change the world forever.

With restrictions introduced, and the shutting of the store during New Zealand’s lockdowns, the focus shifted once again to looking back at the store’s history. Hamish and Tim took to social media to tell the story of Thomas’s Marlborough to a wider audience and with that came a deeper admiration for the store’s resilience during tough times.
At 110 years in 2022, Thomas’s expanded their ecommerce platform with a brand new online store. By implementing the same kind of exceptional service delivered in store to our online world, the skies are the limit and the store is now bringing that Thomas’s experience to the rest of New Zealand and beyond.

No matter how much things have changed in the world, some things remain the same and Thomas’s Marlborough still embodies a rich New Zealand history, punctuated by dedication, innovation and a focus on delivering excellent an shopping experience for their valued customers.
Long may they continue.