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Defying drought: retailers reflect on dry spell

How can regional retailers change how they do business to counter difficult times? How are jewellers tweaking their business operations to adapt.

Rural communities have been hit hard by the drought, particularly where agriculture and farming is tantamount to a town’s sustainability. Ultra-low rainfall in parts of NSW and central Queensland has resulted in a reduction in fodder. Coupled with dwindling cattle prices, this has left farmers with little disposable income to invest in local business.

“When the farmers are doing well, we are all doing well,” is the age-old truism. This is true not only for the jewellery sector but all areas of retail. Regional jewellers are finding alternative ways to engage customers, including integrating different business models, offering new products and services, and establishing unique points of difference.

Forging new partnerships

Regional NSW was hit hard by the drought and the rural township of Temora was no exception. Its industry relies heavily on the success of farmers and dwindling cattle prices and farming revenue have had run-on effects in the retail sector.

Debbie Davidge has operated Debs Jewellery for almost three decades and has witnessed the decline of business around Temora. In addition to the effect it has on local business, Davidge says the drought has impinged on the mental health and general morale of the township.

“I had one lady in my store in tears because somebody had reported her to the RSPCA for her cattle looking underfed. So not only is she dealing with a drought now but all of these other factors are putting a strain on her and her family,” Davidge says. “She’s been a stalwart of our community; she’s an amazing person and for someone like that to have that happen to them is just heartbreaking.”

According to Davidge, this customer and friend was forced to sell 27 head of cattle for $5,000.

“That’s their livelihood and she was devastated; it was her husband’s superannuation,” she says, adding that this isn’t an isolated case. “This affects so many people – it’s hideous.”

Such anecdotes are not unique to Temora or Davidge’s customers. With the extended dry spell, many have been forced to make challenging sacrifices to survive. For Davidge, this means making drastic changes to her business model in order to diversify her store to meet the needs of her customers. As such, Debs Jewellery has built partnerships with local artisans and designers to offer a range of products other than jewellery.

“There is one local girl who is also from a farm and she’s branching out to supplement her income. She’s designing and putting together a fashion label – all beautiful bespoke pieces, all made here – and it’s amazing,” she says.

Davidge has also partnered with a milliner as well as a local woman who produces Venetian blown-glass beads. She says these partnerships are helping to forge a strong community in spite of difficult times.

“I’ve been in retail here for 28 years and my father owned a menswear retail store here for 45 years. Our family is so involved in this community and we have to keep it together. If we don’t, that will be when everything splinters,” she explains. “Retailers have to look outside the square and get outside their traditional retail jewellery mentality because if they don’t, they won’t survive.”

Banding together

Toowoomba region jeweller Geoff Pascoe has managed his business since it opened in Oakey in 1992. He and wife Carolyn have witnessed the fallout of the drought and have seen its impact on Pascoe Jewellers and other retailers.

“People don’t have the same amount of money to spend on gifts when things are tough so you need to change your price mix and cater for the market as it changes. Have a marketing programme, be professional and look after your staff and customers,” he explains, noting that Toowoomba is an unusual region given its growth in the retail sector in recent years.

Debbie Davidge
Debbie Davidge
"Our family is so involved in this community and we have to keep it together. If we don’t, that will be when everything splinters."
Debbie Davidge, Debs Jewellery

“In the past 18 months, our main shopping centre has doubled in size introducing another 100 retailers into town, plus smaller centres are popping up in the region everywhere; competition is fierce and you need to be at your best to survive.”

Pascoe says the small townships in the region are agricultural but have vast employment across health care, education, retail and construction, and food services. Despite the diversity of the Toowoomba region, Pascoe says all businesses should apply the same rules to achieve objectives.

“In any business you need to plan, whether you’re on the land, in retail or running a government,” he explains. “Draw up budgets, determine what steps you need to take to achieve the end result, monitor your results and be aware of the changes happening around you.”

Part of the planning process is liaising with other jewellers, suppliers and associations, all of whom can offer assistance during difficult times.

“As far as the jewellery industry goes, we need to keep the communication lines open,” Pascoe continues. “This is where the buying groups are invaluable for providing opportunities to talk with each other and understand that you’re not on your own. Sometimes there’s a better way of doing things.”

While farmers are the most affected by the drought, all businesses in the region struggle with the ongoing dry weather. Pascoe says members of the tight-knit community are doing all they can to help one another.

“Like most communities affected by drought, people are fundraising to help out. We are very fortunate in Australia; when people need help, the Australian public and businesses are there, especially in the regional areas,” he says, urging, “We need to remember to buy locally and support each other whenever possible.”

Shop local, reap rewards

Pallot Jewellers has been in the same building in Bairnsdale since 1924. Third-generation owner William Pallot has worked in the business as a watchmaker for over 40 years and agrees with Pascoe that supporting local business is paramount.

While East Gippsland has received more rain than other drought-affected regions, farmers have struggled to sustain business. In turn, retailers have felt the cinch on spending. Pallot has seen the best and worst of both worlds; he’s a watchmaker by profession and has spent time working on a cattle farm.

“It’s a tough time for the farmers and it has certainly affected the Bairnsdale retailers. At the moment you can drive to the shops and you can park pretty much wherever you want,” Pallot says, noting that the business has managed to continue its success thanks to tourism and the town’s ageing population.

“There’s a lot of retirement money around that isn’t affected so much by the drought and we’ve got a big hinterland here. Bairnsdale is the largest town between here and Merimbula so a lot of people come from Buchan, Orbost and all those little towns to do their main shopping in Bairnsdale.”

He adds that owning his store has eased financial pressures that might plague other retailers. “I think the fact that we own the store has definitely been a contributing factor to our success,” he says.

“There is a residence upstairs so the rent from that contributes to the business. I think being a retailer would be pretty tough at the moment if you also had to pay a big rent.”

Pallot says the biggest key to his success has been through his support of other local businesses and industry. Pallot Jewellers is the official timekeeper of the local cup and the business sponsors various sports clubs and organisations, which is recognised by locals who choose to support Pallot Jewellers rather than online stores.

“Get involved with local community clubs and sponsor sports and community groups,” he advises. “You’ll find people are very loyal; if you donate to them they’ll spend their money in your store.”

Pallot says showing a commitment to long-term local employment is another way to build a community bond.

“We always employ locals. Two of the women who work in the store with my wife have been with us for over a decade.”

Debbie Davidge
Debbie Davidge
Debs Jewellery
Debs Jewellery
Carolyn and Geoff Pascoe, Pascoe Jewellers
Carolyn and Geoff Pascoe, Pascoe Jewellers

William Pallot, Pallots Jewellers
William Pallot, Pallots Jewellers
Valerie Burgess
Valerie Burgess
West Wyalong Jewellers
West Wyalong Jewellers

Sell practical products

Farmers and local industry have suffered long without rain in West Wyalong.

West Wyalong Jewellers owner Valerie Burgess says she has worked hard to diversify the business to stay in the black during the drought.

“We’ve had to put in lower-priced products, more emotional-type products and items that people need rather than want. We have also focused on hosting events and offering different services,” she says.

“We’ve done two-for-one days where we offer polishing and spring-cleaning of jewellery and we also stock more practical gifts.”

Burgess has been in the industry for 40 years and purchased the business 15 years ago with husband Peter from her in-laws. She says knowledge she gained from the previous owners has helped and she has also found support in belonging to Showcase Jewellers buying group.

“They [The previous owners] had already been through drought so that knowledge of diversifying and making the business run with the current climate does help us,” she says.

Burgess says most of her business comes from the workshop where engraving and watch and jewellery repairs drive sales. She says shoppers respond to the store’s strong customer service.

“We’ve recently started offering a customised, personal touch with our jewellery sales, something you cannot get online. We’ve found that good, old-fashioned customer service is really helping us through this period,” she says, adding that jewellers must remain vigilant and keep trying new things.

“Stick to the basics with your products and try to come up with some ideas to make people come into your store – we try to do that all the time,” she advises.

“Obviously times are tough and we aren’t doing as well as we were 12 months ago but I think the key is to keep plugging along.”

In addition to belonging to a buying group, Burgess says local community groups are very helpful.

For example, the West Wyalong Business Group “prides itself on promoting the ‘shop local, shop small’ kind of attitude”.

“As a small community, we can bounce off each other and help each other,” she says. “We do our best to keep everything in town and support each other and we find people in these small country towns tend to do that.”

Point of difference

Regional NSW has possibly been hit hardest by the drought but Wagga Wagga’s Troy Watkins believes his business, Kristopher Graydon Jewellery, is still going strong.

“It has been dry, but nobody has raised any major concerns. We haven’t noticed an impact on our business,” Watkins says, adding, “The last drought before this one lasted for seven years; it was very dry for a long time and back then there was a bigger response for fundraisers to help the farmers.”

Watkins believes the Wagga Wagga community’s multi-industrial background is responsible for its ongoing success. The rural city is home to universities, an army and air-force base that “carry the city”, as well as farming and produce.

Watkins believes local pride helps drive the economy with most residents opting to purchase goods through local businesses rather than shopping online or travelling.

“I always shop locally no matter what; I don’t shop online,” he says. “Although we are a big city, we do feel inclined to spend the money here so that we can create growth here and promote jobs here.”

Watkins has been in business for 26 years and said Kristopher Graydon has kept its business model as a point of difference to Wagga Wagga competitors. As such, drought and other adverse factors have not changed the shop’s daily operations.

“We are a bit different in that we serve our customers from our benches so customers can walk up to our bench, watch us work and talk to us while we make rings or repair pieces,” Watkins says.

“It is an attraction for our customers and it helps them to build trust in us, because they can see firsthand that the work is done here in front of them. It creates great interest too.”

For Davidge, while it is important to have a willingness to adapt in tough times, awareness of the impacts on mental health is extremely important.

“It can be hard to accept the help of those who are willing to listen and support. At the end of the day, that is what community is about,” she says, adding, “Think outside the square and use the talents of those in the community to help each other.”

While it’s no question that jewellers across the country miss the boon times of old, it is adapting to these changes that has helped retailers to thrive, not just survive.

Having a willingness to think creatively and support the community will help these businesses secure a brighter, and hopefully wetter, future.

Journalist - Jeweller Staff
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Thursday, 28 May, 2020 08:16am
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