Target’s announcement in 2020 that many of its rural and regional stores would close hit many country towns like a bombshell.
In southeast NSW, Target stores in Cooma, Cootamundra, Merimbula, Nowra and Wagga Wagga have all been slated for closure in early-to-mid-2021, among other regional stores across NSW. In the ACT, the store in Weston Creek will close in early-to-mid-2021.
Additionally, Target stores in Bega, Tumut, Ulladulla and Yass will be converted to Kmarts, with a different retail profile, from early-to-mid-2021.
In addition to the potential loss of around 1300 jobs, the impact on retail and small town economies is expected to be significant.
However, some communities are fighting back.
In Cootamundra, plans are well underway to turn the current Target store into a co-operative retail venture. A steering group was established following the midyear announcement in 2020 and it has been consulting with the community on what its primary needs are and whether the idea is viable.
Surveys indicate that children’s clothes, homeware, school shoes and Manchester are among the Cootamundra community’s most urgent requirements.
The current Target site is believed to be locally owned by a businessman who is happy to lease it for the Cootamundra Co-operative venture, which would operate on a membership basis.
Community members will be asked to invest or join as members, with an initial membership rate of around $20. This would enable members to vote, to receive discounts at the store and to become part-owners.
Steering group member Des Guthrie has a wealth of local retail experience stretching more than 45 years.
Des and his wife, Mary, were Cootamundra’s citizens of the year in 2019. He believes care needs to be taken with establishing the co-op and emphasises there’s plenty of work to be done. But he can see the benefits for the community.
“The leadup work is progressing well and there’s certainly a real need for the town,” he tells Region Media. “The town needs to get behind the idea and that will ultimately determine whether it’s a success.”
Des says the idea is viable if the co-operative is well managed and buyers understand their local market.
“Clothing lines I sold in Cootamundra wouldn’t necessarily sell well in Temora, and vice versa,” he says of his long-running menswear business.
“The current business model for many of these chain stores means a lot of stock is purchased by buyers in Sydney. They wouldn’t have a clue what sells in a country town, and that’s been the downfall for many of these centrally managed retailers in regional areas.
“Additionally, Target will clear a lot of stock before the finish up in March. They’d be currently holding $400,000 worth or more. So it will take a while to get the customers in and to stock the shop.”
However, Des says Melbourne-based buying group Frontline operates major fairs on a twice-yearly basis for general retailers, and offers bargain buying opportunities for those who know what to look for.
Australian co-operative principles are enshrined in legislation, including democratic economic participation and care for the community. The Cootamundra Co-operative will require approval from the NSW Minister for Fair Trading and a board of directors, and adhere to an approved set of operating rules.
If successful, the co-op will join a long list of locally grown regional retailers. JB Young, which was established in Canberra, opened stores across southern NSW after taking over Goulburn-based retailers Charles Rogers & Sons. JB Young later bought out JB Meagher and Co of Cootamundra, which operated shops across the South West Slopes, while Western Stores served Central and Western NSW communities.
Des’s first retail job was with the family-run Meagher’s store in Cootamundra, and he says then manager Andrew Meagher was “the best I’ve ever worked for – a wonderful man”.
“When I went out on my own with the menswear business, Andy came over to see me and ask how I was getting on,” he adds. “I asked if I was taking business away from him. ‘You’ve taken the lot!’ he said to me.”
Des is hopeful the Cootamundra Co-op will be the next chapter of local retailing history.
“There’s certainly an opening for it,” he says. “You need a good manager and you need to buy right to sell right. I only wish I was 30 years old again and I’d do it myself.”