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The unexpected challenges of running a business in rural Australia

ROBYN SPARKE turns the focus towards jewellery retail in regional and rural areas, where population demographics impact businesses very differently than in major cities.

In our regional jewellery business, Stephen Sparke Jewellers, one of the most signi cant challenges we readily face is that of diversi cation. Our business consists of two store locations in rural areas – one in the Queensland border town of Goondiwindi, and the other in Moree, in northwest NSW.

There is approximately 126km between the locations; but despite this relatively limited distance, and the fact that they have roughly the same population size, they are very different – both in terms of the demographics and the customer product choice.

However, as they are both regional towns, they share similar challenges.

Moree and Goondiwindi have a ‘transient’ population; professionals in the police force, education departments, employment agencies, and medical and legal fields frequently choosing to work in our rural region for the purpose of acquiring special contracts or government stimulus packages.

Once these contracts have been fulfilled, they then leave the community to further their careers on the east coast.

This makes the acquisition of staff and provision of career planning in our business challenging.

The transient population provides us with choice and diversity in our employees.

It also hinders investment in upskilling, training staff and future career progression in the business, as all of these are impeded by the length of time individuals can commit to employment when they – and/or their partners – are climbing the career ladder.

At the same time, we encourage our local youth to aspire to, and attain, qualifications, which sees them leave the community for secondary and higher education – either boarding school or university.

“We encourage our local youth to aspire to, and a ain, qualifications, which sees them leave the community for secondary and higher education... Accordingly, our junior staff  often leave just after we have them trained and skilled.”

Accordingly, our junior staff often leave just after we have them trained and skilled in customer service, product knowledge and point of sale.

This transition to further education also sees parents frequently visiting their children and therefore making jewellery purchases outside the district, in larger metropolitan areas.

As a result of these factors, the majority of our staff are in the semi-retired age group with aspirations of slowing down and spending time with grandchildren.

They have limited intention to further progress in the jewellery industry or seek roles in areas of management, marketing or production, which could provide further value to our business.

Despite this, our staff are our ‘business family’ who are extremely loyal, proud and hardworking and value their employment in our small country communities.

The last three years have also seen us employ one of our young staff members under the Supported Wage Scheme, which has proven to be extremely successful.

This scheme sees the employee’s wage partially paid by the government based on a regular productivity assessment.

The National Inland Rail Project has attracted more people to our region, adding to the diversity of the local population and bringing the potential of more customers – however, it has not delivered more potential employees for our business.

Local employers cannot compete with government wages and once again, this development is short term with the intended project to be completed within three years.

While as a community we revel in this current economic and employment injection, it too may be unsustainable once infrastructure has been established and a local workforce is no longer required.

With such diversity and transience in the population, purchasing of stock can be challenging – especially ‘on-trend’ products. It usually takes some time for customers to recognise that we sell these products, despite social media and marketing promotions!

This is likened to the real-estate market, where the ‘wave’ of demand hits the east coast first and it can take up to six months before an impact is noticed in the rural areas.

It would be lovely to focus on a niche market or reposition as a boutique store; however, with these challenges and diversities we need to ensure that we can supply and service a wide customer base.

Like any regional or rural business, we must also provide competitive exclusivity for the out-of-town shoppers who view cities such as Sydney or Brisbane as their go-to shopping destination, while making sure that we are providing a price point that is suitable for our local customers – especially in competition with online purchases.

Name: Robyn Sparke
Business: Stephen Sparke Jewellers
Position: Co-owner
Location: Goondiwindi, QLD; Moree, NSW
Years in the industry: 15 years, collectively with my husband


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