Retail Focus: A Co-operative Effort

A hundred-year old Co-op in country Queensland has been given a new lease of life via a transformation to a Thrifty-Link store. Pauline Hoogen reports…

Store: Esk Thrifty-Link
Owners: Esk Co-op
Group: John Danks

Opened in 1964 and owned by the Esk District Co-op, the hardware store in Esk (Qld) has been a major institution for the 2,000 residents of Esk and its surrounding district.

For more than 50 years, the Esk hardware store remained unchanged operating out of an old timber building it shared with the grocery store. The store joined the Thrifty-Link chain in 1990 and in December, 2005, it was given a new lease on life with the opening of purpose built premises.

The small, rural town of Esk is situated in the Brisbane Valley approximately 30 minutes north-west of Ipswich and a similar distance north east of Toowoomba, the two closest regional centres, and is about an hour south of Brisbane. The district, once renowned for being a big dairy producer, now relies on cattle and small hobby farms for its economy. The Co-operative’s General Manager, David Pickering, explains: “When the dairy industry was deregulated, it just about killed off the industry in this area. Where there were once sixty dairy farms in and around Esk, today there are less than twenty. These are larger operations, that still have a reasonable impact on the local economy, but some of the farmers have chosen to diversify and branch into beef cattle because they were struggling to make a decent living from dairy, when competing against the bigger players.”

Caption: The old Esk hardware store

It seems that the growing social trend of the ‘green change’ is also bringing people to the area. “We are only an hour from Brisbane, so we are finding people who are sick of the rat race are making a lifestyle decision to slow down the pace and move to a place that offers them community, opportunity and the chance to appreciate the beauty of the area, within an easy driving distance from a major regional centre or capital city,” said David. “The introduction of small hobby farms has been a boost for the town.”

Esk District Co-operative began in 1906 as a dairy co-operative but branched into retail in the 1950s. The Co-op also operates a Thrifty-Link store at Toogoolawah, about 18 kilometres down the road. Toogoolawah has a similar population and demographic as Esk. Both stores operate in an environment without any real hardware competition. “There are a couple of agricultural produce stores and there is a plumbing supplies outlet at Toogoolawah but when it comes to hardware, we are it. That is why the Co-op took the decision to build the new store, because of the tremendous potential we had to deliver a greater variety of stock and better service,” David explained.

A New Store
The brand-new ‘barn style’ store is triple the size of the previous premises and carries four times the amount of stock. Customers have embraced the new store wholeheartedly. Sales in January, a traditionally quiet trading period, were up 30% on the previous year. “We designed the store with the customers in mind. It is open, airy, not too formal, and easy to shop in,” said David. Customer service is the main focus of the new store. “We are owned by the co-operative, so essentially our owners are our customers – which takes the statement that we are really a part of the local community to a whole new level. Our staff are friendly and efficient, they greet every customer (most by name) and ensure that the customers don’t just take advantage of the tremendous range we have on offer, but also that they get the most helpful advice and service too,” said David. “We feel that we are so much more than just a destination to buy hardware from.”

Caption: Manager, Bernie Moore, and Kym McCleary

At Thrifty-Link Esk, the friendly staff of six includes Bernie Moore, the Store Manager for 40 years, who says that he is in ‘hardware heaven’ with the new store and increased ranges. That level of knowledge and experience alone is an asset to the new store but so much more is being done to provide product knowledge and staff training. “We are working closely with some of our major suppliers and even got a local plumber in to offer training on plumbing enquiries, to ensure our staff are as well-trained and knowledgeable as anyone else in the hardware business,” said Bernie. “Danks have also been a fantastic support,” enthused David. “They played a key role in setting up the new store, and advised us on layout and merchandise. Their customer service program was terrific, they sent representatives up to train our staff which we found very helpful. We’re certainly now in a position to embrace the Thrifty-Link message, ‘handy for hardware’.”

Caption: The new store is spacious and well stocked

The new store has been a shot in the arm for Esk. As with many small, rural communities around the country, Esk is feeling the effects of drought. Esk received only about one-quarter of the high rainfalls experienced in Brisbane and the Gold Coast over December and January and as David pointed out, people have to buy seed and water before they buy paint. Development and growth has been stagnant, but with a new IGA store in the pipeline, things are looking up in Esk. “We have a couple of tradesmen customers but predominantly our customers are DIYers and there is little building activity around. Our new store is the most exciting thing to happen in the town for quite a while,” David explained.

Centenary Celebrations
The move to new premises was also perfect timing for the Co-op’s 100-year anniversary being celebrated this year.

Caption: The outdoor section of the store

“We’ll be sponsoring a photography exhibition at the local shows at Esk and Toogoolawah with the Co-op as the theme, as well as producing a book on the history of the Co-op,” said David. “We will be selling centenary merchandise in the store, running a colouring competition for the schools and holding a Ball in October. It will be a big turn out with so many locals connected to the Co-op over the years.” Sounds as though it will be the highlight of Esk’s social calendar this year! “Definitely,” agreed David with a laugh.

“In addition, we are running a competition for students to design a new logo for the Co-op. After 100 years we thought it was about time for a new one!”

Customers won’t miss out on the excitement. The store is planning a series of bargain packed three-day sales from Easter right through to October, when the centenary officially kicks in. “We wanted to involve the whole community and give something back to them as a way of saying thank-you for all their support over so many years,” added David.

One thing that won’t change in the future is the store’s commitment to looking after their customers with expert service and advice. “That’s been a tradition in Esk and will be so for years to come,” said David.