The quiet achievers
Store owners:Leonard and Moyra Choules
Buying group: Thrifty-Link Hardware
Learning the retail trade as they went along, Leonard and Moyra Choules make for unlikely winners of a major national award
It is easy to write off a store like Gingin Trading. Located in an agricultural town 92 kilometres north of Perth, it caters to a fairly remote population of about 4500 – what you would hardly call critical mass. The store owners, husband-and-wife team of Leonard and Moyra Choules, come across as laidback country folks, whose unaffected demeanours fit the mould of an early-retiring couple tending a store in a sleepy rural town. Without any prior hardware retailing experience, their most previous jobs running a shearing contract and handling outsourced accounting work, do not resonate in this industry either.
So it is little wonder that when Gingin Trading was named both the Thrifty-Link Hardware WA Store of the Year and National Store of the Year last month, it created a minor stir as one of those dark horse moments to cheer about. The country store had beaten more than180 businesses across Australia in the hardware convenience store chain under Danks’ umbrella group, to bag the coveted national award.
But perhaps no one was more surprised at the win than the couple themselves. “It was a fantastic honour just to win the state title, but to win the national award… that was just unbelievable,” Moyra enthuses, still a bit heady at the thought.
“It’s our first ever award from Danks so you feel recognised for all the hard work you’ve put in. Somewhere along the line, we must have gotten some things right, whether it’s work ethics or our approach to business.”
On a more sombre note, she adds: “It’s something to be proud of especially when you get tired working seven days a week and your business is your whole life. There’s a lot of stuff that you give up for it. When this sort of thing happens, you think it’s sort of worth the while.”
Looking back on the initial struggling years, Moyra describes their journey as one being “personally, financially and emotionally draining”. It took the Choules two years to find their feet in hardware retailing, learning to eke out a business on lean budgets and scant stock levels, when revenue had to be constantly ploughed back. “You can see why people throw in the towel,” she says knowingly.
Leonard and Moyra purchased the Thrifty-Link hardware store seven years ago. The previous owners had given up the business after seven months, but the Choules saw the potential to turn it around. It is one of six shops located on the same street row that services the entire town’s shopping needs. The only competitor is a general store just three doors down, that specialises in rural tools and gardening assortments.
“We felt that with our rural background and experience running the shearing business, we knew how to operate a country store and understood the needs of rural customers,” says Moyra, explaining their switch to hardware retail. The Choules were also armed with a wealth of hands-on tooling knowledge, although primarily self-taught. Their excesses as a DIY-fanatic couple is testified by fast accumulating tool cabinets and a cramped work shed, where there was always an ongoing project.
“We’ve been DIY people for a long time, buying old houses and renovating them”, adds Leonard, the more reserved of the pair. “That’s where our knowledge comes from. We can advise our customers on the selection of tools because we have been down that track and know what works and what doesn’t. Between Moyra and me, there’s a lot of knowledge we can share with DIY people to get them there quicker with fewer mistakes.”
The first two years may have taken a toll on their initial zeal and fire but the diehard retailers were slowly turning the corner – building up an extensive product arsenal in the meantime. It didn’t take them too long to amass an enviable range filling up 12 aisles within the approximately 260 sqm floor space – excluding a shed for excess stock.
Catering predominantly to DIY customers, with a 20 per cent trade lean, Gingin Trading’s main business comes from supplying the tooling and plumbing needs of home owners. Among the store’s best selling products are cement, irrigation products, rural pipings, PVC and DWV pipings. Business has benefitted immensely from new real estate projects for countryside holiday homes. Being accessible to Perth, a good 40-minute drive away, Gingin provides an appealing alternative to the city’s urban dwellers looking for a country escape.
Besides providing the necessary tools to fit out the new homes, Leonard and Moyra dole out important advice to new home owners on the installation of basic works like drainage and stormwater systems. Gingin Trading’s reputation as the go-to store for plumbing wares is endorsed by the town’s busiest and most established plumber that gets all his supplies from them.
Tackling the demands of water shortages in a dry state is another business opportunity. The store sees to the locals’ outdoor watering needs through a well-stocked variety of irrigation, sprinkler and reticulation systems. Besides benefiting the plumbing range, the recent housing activities helped to steady the growth of the gardening section that accounts for 25 per cent of revenue.
A strong link
Although the proprietors themselves did not make the decision to join the buying group – it was purchased as a Thrifty-Link outlet – they have gained much from the association.
“In the beginning, it was a case of still learning the ropes and not wanting to rock the boat. Over the years, we have found the value of having the support of the group,” Moyra comments.
Thrifty-Link’s seasonal promotions also help to bring in store traffic, particularly for its Spring and Christmas catalogue sales. Although the store rarely spends on advertising or marketing, they have been relatively successful with in-store promotions like specials bins, counter sales, gift card promotions and spend-over-$50 specials. Moyra adds: “The items in specials bin may not be heavily discounted but I’ve found that they tend to disappear pretty fast.”
Gingin Trading gets a fair percentage of its supplies from the Danks warehouse although they also source from outside the chain. They accept special order requests from customers and run their own freight trucking service, getting most of the requested stock from Perth.
Says Moyra: “DIY is a highly competitive market. Through the Danks warehouse, a chargeback system via the group’s preferred suppliers and our own sourcing abilities, we have been able to remain very price competitive.
The store owners not only appreciate such feedback, they base much of their buying decisions on observing and talking to their customers. Although they depend on SYM-PAC as a POS and backend system, Moyra reveals that for them, computer data cannot replace ground experience when it comes to stocking decisions.
Telling of her growing confidence as a hardware retailer, Moyra says manually checking the shelves and monitoring customer activity and feedback provides the most accurate assessment of what stock to hold, replace or order.
These empirical methods have apparently served the business well. Moyra beams: “We have customers coming to us after visiting a Bunnings store in Perth, commenting that our products are cheaper. “Many tourists who visit our store have commented on the breadth and depth of our product selection. From these comments, we know that we are doing something right.”
Of course, if the Choules should ever be in doubt as to whether their intuitive style of running the store is truly effective, they now have two Danks trophies with which to consult for answers.