Interview with New England Collective owner Deb Cartledge

July 15, 2022

In the latest in our series of interviewing Business New England members we spoke with New England Collective owner and BNE Board Member Deb Cartledge, Deb provides a fascinating insight into the local retail sector.

 

We have heard that rejuvenating the mall is one of the new councils’ objectives, what concrete steps would like to see them take to achieve this goal?

DC: I see the mall as a really tricky situation that I’ve thought about a lot, the problem, apart from what businesses have been through for the past 4 years, is that we can’t compete with offices on rent, we just don’t have the cashflow & turnover to justify what landlords want. Is that the only problem, probably not, I have heard a suggestion recently to zone it all retail, will that get through, probably not, but that would bring shops back into the mall.

I do like how New York , and I’m not comparing Armidale to New York, but I do like how New York does not allow any vacancies in their CBD and they start to fine landlords after a while, I think that’s a great model.  It’s a tricky situation for some  real estate agents as they are battling to meet the expectations of the landlords from what they were getting years ago.

 

on that, do you have a comment on the parking situation?

DC: The biggest complaint I get from customers is that we have no parks nearby and even though we have one behind us which is not too far to walk (its often full) and it’s something we have to consider in the future

RW: A criticism we often here is that businesses aren’t open after 2pm and don’t open on Sundays how do you feel about that?

DC: Yes, it’s definitely a criticism I hear all the time. I get quite upset when I hear talk about businesses, particularly small retail businesses do it for a lifestyle, that really drives me crazy. People don’t go into business for a lifestyle, they get into business because they want to be in business. So, when people say businesses aren’t open after 2 o’clock it is honestly because there are no customers shopping after 2pm. I think people in Armidale want all the retail and coffee options but its just not being supported, so unless its supported they just won’t be there. I think the more people that support coffee shops, the ones that are open after 2pm, the better off they will be. In regard to Sunday – I’d love to open on a Sunday, I’d love to be trading 7 days a week, but for me to open on a Sunday is a loss leader and it doesn’t even come close to covering my cost of opening for the day because nobody is around.

And I think you have attempted opening on a Sunday in the past, is that right?

DC: I’ve tried that, absolutely. We used to open on market Sunday, but that was not great either.

 

What are the positives of doing business in Armidale? 

DC: I love Armidale. I really love Armidale. I think its friendly, I like that people can walk in and you know who they are and what their business is, you remember what they bought last time. They come in and say I want a present for blah blah blah and usually someone will know who they are talking about, so I just love it. I think people do want to genuinely support people as well, so that’s great , and it is easy, it’s a small town , its easy to get to town , you’ve got no commute .And I love being able to deal with other local businesses to make my business work and I love having money that ive generated then going to the beautician or the hairdressers and I know it sounds silly, but I look at that big picture and I like that spreading that money around , I think its awesome , its just a big circle.

 

The Uralla situation where they have that ‘local’ emphasis, and I think its fair to say, you are at the centre of what we see as a locally themed shopping experience. Where Uralla have that hub of businesses, we have had mixed results, why do you think we haven’t quite got their as Uralla has?

On the Uralla front and I feel they have an amazing community, some really spirited, bright and community passionate people.  This is so important in making a town work.  The highway certainly helps as the town becomes a stop on the highway, however generally people have to want to support the town and business owners need to be prepared to open a store and that take that risk and that has all happened in Uralla.

From our perspective We started out with a major focus on local makers and locally produced goods. For us that business model didn’t work, so we had to expand the scope to include regional makers and that then branched out into more curated goods. Of course we have some imported goods , but we try to maintain a balance .Recently though we have seen the whole scene change, from where it was 2 or 3 years ago for local makers , there are so many options to get their wares out, particularly online , and what Seasons of New England are doing  is amazing , so there are so many avenues out there , and I just felt that our avenue was becoming a little stale , so I wanted to take local makers from that basic level to the next level and to do that and to be sustainable, they have to be wholesaling , and that’s a whole new level from just supplying something online or to supplying to one local store . So for me its important that I can help those businesses go from one level to the next, and I do spend time with them, going through their pricing , telling them what they need, discussing with them how they can market their products , explaining wholesale markup – and if they are keen, I’ll give them all time in the world , so I have sort of changed that regional focus a little bit.

 

Is there a knowledge gap there that needs filing, so they are already prepared in terms of professional support to know about mark ups etc?

I suppose there is a hole there, people will just come in and to talk to me about it, which I have no problem with at all, I really love talking to people about it. I mean ultimately you want to see any maker succeed to whatever level of success they want to. Which at times I guess I’m filing that without knowing it.

 

The region has had so many issues thrown at us, droughts, floods, COVID, mice … you name it, how did you navigate, particularly COVID with supply issues and lack of tourists and being shut down , how did you respond to these challenges?

DC: We were shut down two years in a row, obviously we focused on going online like everyone else, as much as we possibly could, but you know fighting in the online world is quite stressful, we just had to manage the best we could, there was no golden ticket answer. We just did everything we could, we did local deliveries, we did everything anyone asked, we did  Lockdown hampers, tried to come up with different products. Years ago I remember thinking ‘if we can just get through the drought, if we can just get through the drought’ and then COVID happened. I honestly believe there is light at the end of the tunnel, I still believe that good times are coming for retail, and I still honestly believe that people still love retail. I don’t believe that simply being online is what the future is, yes, it’s a massive part of what the marketplace is and I’m not denying it. But I think there is that little resurgence, that people love to come in and see and feel and smell. And some of the things you online you get them, and you go ‘well that’s crap’ and you just throw it away straight away. I genuinely feel those times (personal shopping experience) is coming back, maybe not to the extent that it was, I have to just keep looking to the future and being positive, you know, I wish I could  convince more people to invest in retail in Armidale, it would be awesome. And I sometimes think yes, I do it for profit, and yes I do it for business, but I also do it for Armidale, to offer a service to Armidale that I believe is missing.

You have a loyal customer base and obviously a lot of time and effort go into the products and layout, how do you foster that loyalty?

 

My colour palate is defiantly colour , I’m not a neutral gal , so I’ve tried to fight it when I’m purchasing by buying something in black  or I’ll get neutrals, but you’ll see very little of it , because its just not who I am and I think its taken me a little while to accept that that is ok, where I used to buy for everyone but now I hone in on something with an edge to it, that’s a bit different and I’ve got awesome staff, I’ve got Karen who is my right-hand girl and she’s the same as me. And for example, greeting people is a big thing that’s important.

 

On that, we have heard from a lot of businesses that staffing is an issue.

I think if I get COVID it would be a struggle, but Karen would step up and visa versa, but we probably have enough staff to fill in, so we are probably OK, but sickness could knock us out.

Going back to making the issue of attracting customers to the mall is there areas that businesses could do to attract more business? 

Businesses could be given a bit more freedom to paint the outside of buildings , but there are rules you have to abide by and it comes back to money , you can put planter boxes in and you can do all that gorgeous stuff but at the end of the day what for if people aren’t going to come then …

And the awnings have been mentioned as an issue not matching the shops name

Yes, yes and landlords should be forced to do that because it doesn’t look good. You look at some of the shops that have gone into decline and just because we are in the country, they don’t have to look like that. And there are maybe too many cheap shops which sends a message. If you are a visitor, you are seeing that, and it says something about your town.

 

Whilst acknowledging that those businesses pay wages and some are locally owned franchises which keeps money circulating within the local economy, many aren’t, and that’s money leaving the local economy, which doesn’t happen in your case…

Well the profits yes and that’s true, but I love it -I love seeing (for example)  Rosie from Seesaw coming in here ands spending money, because I know she’s in here supporting another business and she is in business and I truly love it.Even when I go and get my haircut and I know it’s only a haircut, but you know, I always make sure I buy my shampoo there and when you are in business you go that extra mile and you think about it a bit more, I don’t buy shampoo from the supermarkets because there is a bit more love when you buy at your hairdressers, and I know what business owners have invested to set up that shop, its not cheap.

 


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