History of Supermarkets in Gawler by Mike Johnson

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History of Supermarkets in Gawler - by Mike Johnson.

As presented to the Gawler History Team meeting on Thursday 3rd October 2013 at the Zion Lutheran Hall {slightly edited}

I have lived in the Gawler region since 1973. From then, until 1992, I operated stores as supermarkets, leaving the industry following the death of my wife Cindy, mother of our four daughters, in 1991. During that time the population of Gawler itself grew from about ten thousand to well over fifteen thousand and has continued to grow since and is now close to twenty thousand. A big expansion.

Incidentally, my wife traced her family to an ancestor who came to South Australia on the ship "Orleana". However that is not the subject of tonight's talk which is to tell of the development of the supermarkets in Gawler and note some of the changes in technology that have affected the industry locally.

What is a supermarket? In America there is a definition, and the term is applied to a store of more than ten thousand square feet selling dry groceries, meat and fruit and veg under the same roof by the same operator. It is appropriate that we bring America into the talk early on, as that is where the revolution in food retailing began back in the depression days in that country. The motor car had become prevalent, big city centres were congested, and price was all important. There were many empty factory sites with large yards for storage of goods no longer made, where the cars could park, big buildings for selling space and a developed network for transport to receive and send goods and materials. Stack cartons of stock directly onto the factory floor, rip the tops off, put up a price ticket, let the public pick their own goods and then take to a register to pay, and then organise their own goods to their own car. Buy in bulk, small mark up, high turnover, low overheads; good profit. The concept worked. The first operator started up more stores with a brand name you could not forget, "Piggly Wiggily Stores", and it was not long before others seeing his success copied his style. Self Service had arrived.

But, not in Australia. Here the English system still worked, where there were lots of little stores where assistants took your instructions, assembled the order, possibly then delivered it to your home, and then sent you a bill that you paid thirty days later. There was a cost to every service that was built into the price of the goods that everyone paid. Here in Gawler, the Eudunda Farmers store still operated some of those ways after the Second World War, when the American influence started to sweep the country.

So, in 1973, when I first arrived in Gawler the change was taking place. Whinnen’s Grocery store [on Cowan Street] with its large cellar where the cheeses were regularly turned stood, where Whinnen’s Lane is, on the site of the fruit and veg store [She’s Apples]. On the western side of Murray Street, the George sisters ran a small shop across from what is now called Victory Square. Eudunda Farmers had a large store with groceries at the back where Ned’s is now; and then there was “Tom the Cheap” in the premises that Meznars now occupy.

Back to the north of the street, on the eastern side where the Commonwealth Bank now stands, was a Woolworths food store of about six thousand square feet of selling space on the ground floor; with offices, training rooms and store rooms accessible from High Street where there was a car park.

At the south end of the street there was a "Big Heart" store where the tile shop used to be. There were about four service butchers, a couple of fruit and veg stores, and several delis. There were also shops in Willaston, Gawler South and Gawler West and, as well, all the smaller villages like Roseworthy, Freeling, Hamley Bridge had viable stores serving their own communities.

When I came to town in early 1973, with the possibility of being offered the opportunity to run the Foodland store being proposed alongside the Prince Albert Hotel, on walking up the western side of Murray Street for the first time I was struck by the fact that everyone said a cheerful "Hello" and the same thing happened down the Eastern side. I thought this is a town that I would like to be a part of, so when the offer was made, I was only too happy to say “yes”.

Of those stores that operated in 1973, none remain. At that time, the only store with a car park was Woolworths, with a rear car park at a different level to the shop. It was also the busiest store in town and supplied the Woolworths store in Tanunda with prepacked meat and perhaps some fruit and veg, so that created extra staff positions for Gawler.

However the store that impressed me most was the "Big Heart" store at the south. Extremely clean, well laid out and well presented, it deserved to be better patronised, but the main drawback was “no parking” other than roadside. It is a pity in a way that "Big Heart" did not survive. It had been one of a small group of stores owned by an independent operator, who started trading after the Second World War. I believe the story was that he and his wife had been through the concentration camps and there were no children. On his death, the stores were left to the Childrens Hospital, so the profits could help sick children. Unfortunately all profits were used by the Hospital, as there was always need for new medical equipment and the stores did not keep up with the developments in the industry.

The first job offer I received after arriving in Australia was with the CPS stores; the organisation operating the "Big Heart", but I never took it up. In 1973 Gawler was still a country town, in feel, and the Federal Government classified Gawler as outside the metro area, while the State classified the town as within the metro area. and I believe this happened because of the development of Elizabeth. While Elizabeth was being established, and before the centre was built, Gawler was the nearest shopping centre for many of the migrants, and it had the feel of an English town.

Friday late night trading became big business, as, being outside the metro area, the early closing act did not apply, and after pay day on Friday, the town was very busy in the evening. The local shops in Elizabeth did not like losing the trade, so complained to the authorities hoping to be able to trade on Friday evenings themselves. Instead the metro boundary was moved from near Smithfield to the North Para River and Gawler came into the early closing act; so the stores had to close. That caused a few anomalies. For instance, someone phoning from Elizabeth to Adelaide [within the federal metro boundaries] were charged a local call fee, even though the exchange used was in Gawler. Whereas, someone in Gawler phoning Adelaide through the same exchange [but federally outside the metro area] was charged a trunk call fee. Also, stock coming from Adelaide was treated as being delivered in the metro area and thus was delivered freight free. It would appear that Woolworths Head office, being interstate, may not have picked up the change and still charged their Gawler store freight fees; so Gawler prices were higher than Elizabeth prices.

So, Foodland opened on November 15th 1973. Sales were predicted on the published population figures of just over ten thousand, but Gawler services a much wider area. Estimated to require three and a half staff, as well as Cindy and myself, when the store opened, we had a “tiger by the tail”. The casual staff we employed for the opening became permanent and we were soon employing some twenty five. We liked the town and the town liked us. A few years later, a survey identified regular customers from the near country villages to the north, up to Clare and Burra and also from Peterborough, and the old gold mining ghost town of Waukaringa, and, very surprisingly, from Murray Bridge and beyond through farmers that had trained at Roseworthy College.

The next store to open was the “Tom the Cheap” store in Tod Street. An organisation started by Tom Wardle in Perth (where he later became mayor) was a discount operation. The whole emphasis was on price; just like the American fore-runners. Little service, many stores in old picture-theatres that nobody else wanted, untidy, poor lighting, second hand equipment, but by keeping the overheads down he made a success. He made a lot of challenging the recommended retail prices, which were prevalent then from manufacturers and, in some cases like bread and milk and baby food, by government decree. His old store was closed and he built the store in Tod Street with which Tom Wardle intended to change the format to take on Coles and Woolworths by starting his Big T stores in competition to K Mart and Big W. Still to sell groceries cheap, he wanted to extend his range into non-foods and sent buyers to Asia to source stationery and non-foods. His buyers bought, but tied up a lot of finance in doing so. Tom Wardle’s partner in South Australia did not agree with moving away from their winning formula and, under an agreement, insisted on being bought out for cash. Lack of finance brought Tom Wardle’s empire crashing down.

The Cooperative Warehouse, that I was a member of, was owed money by “Tom the Cheap” and negotiated to take over his stores. They offered them to the nearest successful retailer, and thus I went into “Tom the Cheap” store which we called “Toms Gawler”. This store at eighteen thousand square feet was much bigger than the Murray Street store and had better parking facilities, had few staff (about three full time) and was a challenge to bring up to break-even point and into a profitable situation. The support shops of fruit and veg, meat and snack bar were taken over as their leases expired and the store equipped with modern shelving and refrigeration. Obviously that task was not all my own work. The staff who were left in Toms were excellent and, having seen how things could go so wrong, were keen to see the store succeed, even if it was now owned by someone they had looked upon as a competitor.

It was in this store that we first started using computers. Of the many on offer, we chose IBM as it seemed to be one of the safest firms to deal with. The computer was installed in the office that had to be air-conditioned (the rest of the store was not) and the flooring had to be non-static and it was off limits to all except the office staff. Sadly it was a wrong choice. Although it did the wages OK, any other things we wished it to do required writing a programme in a language that only IBM used, and we did not have that expertise. But then, when you are the first to try something, it does not always come off.

Our next venture into the electronic age was more successful. On an overseas study tour to America, we had heard and seen bar-coding and scanning registers coming into use. A visit to NCR in Dayton Ohio let us see the latest developments they were working on. Registers, capable of scanning; not true computers but memory banks. With another Foodland retailer, we made a bulk purchase and became one of the first scanning operations in the State. Being an unknown, we had to help people understand the benefits of the system and, on the whole, that went well. The thing I liked about the system was that the customer could identify easily what they had paid for an item. Before scanning, a long list of numbers took ages to work out and sometimes staff made manual mistakes; most of which incidentally were to charge a lower price than they should have. Some people argued against scanning but they do not save wages; although prices no longer need to be applied to each item in the store but all changes to price have to be made in a proper sequence and a code of practice is followed. Can mistakes happen? Of course, but they are mistakes; not intended price manipulation.

What was happening elsewhere in town as far as development was concerned? Dr. Dawes’ site on Lyndoch Rd where Fasta Pasta and TAFE now stand was identified as a potential site and Woolworths were tipped to build on that site. It did not happen, but indicated that Woolworths would be interested in developing in Gawler. Another site that was looked at by Coles was the old fire station site in Tod Street, but they were informed at the time that the site was not for sale. This site was eventually bought by Council [using monies from the car parking fund established from developers] when the fire authorities decided that a new fire station was required [not having the essential service situated in an area where traffic congestion would slow down response times]. The house next door was also purchased with car parking funds in a separate fund and with private donations, and the land granted to the Council for car parking for the town centre.

The majors like to build on “greenfield sites” on the edge of towns where they can, so they can capture as much trade as they can for themselves and not have to share facilities with other retailers.

The Coles development on the old market site at the north end of Murray Street is almost a “greenfield site” and certainly it has been built so the major activity takes place away from the previous shopping area as much as possible. The Town Planner of the time insisted that Coles built in sympathy with the historic appearance of Gawler. To me, it looks very like the old Wentworth jail, but some would say I am biased; but even so it is much better looking than the grey concrete walls that are being erected within the town nowadays.

The Coles development has been successful for them and even if we may regret the characters that came to town to sell their ducks and geese, their lambs, and their feed on the old Thursday market days, much employment has been generated in the town and helps Gawler to become a destination. Interestingly, the Coles store here had the highest percentage of non-foods in the Coles stores in the State; an indication that a discount department store was missing from our retail mix.

Back to Gawler Foodland and “Tom Gawler”. When Coles opened overnight, the sales in the stores dropped dramatically. One store lost one third of its trade, and the other lost half. I lost a lot of sleep. It’s a good feeling to give someone a job and it is hard having to decide who will lose theirs but it had to be done. A few did get taken on by the new store in town, but by keeping my core staff and not making any money ourselves in the next twelve months, we plugged away, and a year later were able to be back to nearly our previous sales figures.

Now we were running two stores with the same type of offering. The smaller store in Murray Street was restricted in parking, Murray St, traffic was becoming busier, so Foodland was harder to access so even though the Foodland image was stronger, the potential in Tod St. was better. What to do? With the demise of “Tom the Cheap”, the State now lacked a discounter. Research in Sydney led to the creation of the Cheap Foods group, which started off in the Murray Street store. A big learning curve! Then we had the biggest building fire in South Australia since the Second World War; Derek Sutch's complex burnt down. I can remember the phone call from the security firm in the middle of the night. "We have not received an alarm from your store but every fire truck in the metro area has been sent to your store’s address - the corner of Tod and Reid Sts." A little later, standing at the back door of the store, seeing flames shooting thirty feet or so into the air, I thought we would be the next to catch alight, but thanks to the firies that did not occur.

Together with a developer, the burnt out site was purchased and a large supermarket built and opened in the 1980's. While looking over the town, the developer noted that the TAFE site, in the centre of town, would be an ideal location for a major shopping development; "keep me informed if you hear anything". We opened the new store as Gawler Cheap Foods, [twenty eight thousand square feet] and sold off the store in Murray St and Victory Square.

Meanwhile, there was talk of Woolworths trying to get into town and possibly looking at a site out by the Bypass. That, I thought, would be bad for the town and remembering my developer friend’s words, started to put together a plan to get a BigW in the centre of the town. An option for a critical parcel of land was acquired and a concept of a shopping centre, with a discount department store, was envisaged and the penalty for me was that another supermarket would be in town; but at least it would be close [not on the outskirts] and with the extra traffic flow and the increasing population growth, we could still operate successfully. We took that concept plan to Robin John, the Town Clerk of the day.

The concept was for two anchor tenants [BigW at one end and a Woolworths supermarket at the other], with a mall of sixteen support shops at ground level. A first level of underground car park over the whole site for customer parking, a second level of below ground car park for TAFE staff and students located above the shopping complex, and, at the same level, a new hall for the CWA that they could use and perhaps hire out for an income, as they had a small hall on the site to be developed. We contacted Woolworths and they were interested.

And then my wife was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. My life changed. The option to the land was passed on to others who believed in the project {by this time Coles had received a sniff and wanted to acquire the land to stop the project}. The result has been a very watered down version of the vision but we have what we have.

The next development is the Race-course development that has come up from a rezoning decision taken at State level, hours before an election was called and without consultation with the local authorities. Originally Coles and Woolworths were outbid for the site, but the original operator had to withdraw and now Coles is to be the operator.

So far the site on the Gawler East development has not attracted much interest, although the developers are pushing it, as it is less than two kilometres from the town centre where the other operators are situated.

So from starting in 1973, the retail scene has changed dramatically. Technology has changed the way that customers see the shops operating, from goods with price tickets attached and cashiers manually hitting keys, to bar codes being read by scanners [mainly with cashier assistance] but now, as in BigW, you can scan products yourself and pay without relating to another person. But just as big, if not more so, has been the change behind the scenes. Previously stock arrived on a truck that had to be manually unloaded; a job mainly for males as it was physically demanding work. The goods coming in then had to be sorted into the areas where they would be located within the shop. The warehouses then began loading the goods onto pallets and sorting them into the categories where they belonged in the stores ( store layouts became more standard) and a hydraulic lift attached to the trucks which enabled the stock to be unloaded without much manual labour and then wheeled into the various aisles for loading onto the shelves. Physically this has been a major change to the materials handling. It was about this time that you started to see male checkout operators.

Stock ordering also became electronically enhanced. Shelf labels were produced that showed [besides the price which was all the customer noticed] the regular sale of the product and how much stock was required on the shelf and how much to reorder. The order was no longer manually written into an order book that then was sent by mail to the warehouse where it was punched into a computer manually, but punched into an electronic device at store level that was then transmitted to the warehouse via a phone line; obviating the postal service and the manual punching at the warehouse. Also, the invoice that accompanied the goods from the warehouse would be programmed to display the retail price that the owner had selected for the product and produced shelf tickets for the stock.

Stock control is, of course, a big task in a supermarket that may have between ten thousand and sometimes more than twenty five thousand individual lines. The large chains aim for ten days stock cover and they obtain that at store level so a large supermarket with a turnover of a million dollars a week will carry about one and a half million dollars worth of stock. In the old manual days that would have blown out to three weeks stock; some three million dollars worth. It is a complex task and the store managers are paid well for their efforts.

The range of products has varied considerably over the years. At one stage, new lines were coming out on a continual basis but, with the decline of food manufacturing in Australia, that has been curtailed. New lines were always accompanied by heavy advertising and that, of course, cost lots of money and which was calculated into the wholesale cost of the product. Recipes were closely guarded, but if there was a successful product launch, another company would cash in on the advertising by producing a similar product, but, by not advertising or educating the market, would be able to sell at a lower price thus undercutting the market developer.

That leads us to Home Brands. At first they were a means whereby a factory could make use of idle time and a factory, and would only produce Home Brands when their factories did not have contracts to fill of their own brands. They would not use the same recipe over the years. That has changed and now factories are built specifically to produce Home Brands; most of them overseas. Home Brands used to be cheaper in both quality and price, but under the new scene, there are Home Brands that are up-market and others that are made to a price point, and the chains have large ranges. The other day, a survey in a chain store of tinned tomatoes showed seventeen lines on sale. Six own brand packed overseas and ten overseas brands and one brand packed in Australia. In a smaller independent store, there were seventeen brands from overseas and seventeen packed in Australia. The trend in Australia now is for the chains to offer their own brands, to the exclusion of advertised brands. For them, warehousing is easier and if you control a major share of the market, you can dictate what the customer is allowed to purchase. Market forces can be manipulated and in my opinion that is what is happening.

Advertising was mentioned. The ads you see are paid for via supplier subsidies and a profit is made by the stores from them.

Shopping hours. The first strike in South Australia by shop assistants was here in Gawler back at the beginning of the last century. The shopkeepers wanted to extend the shopping hours on a Saturday evening by an extra hour, and this was when a forty hour week was a wish for most workers that was not granted. How things have changed? In 1973, we opened at nine in the morning and closed at five thirty; with thirty minutes allowed to clear the last customer from the store. Saturdays trading was from eight thirty to eleven thirty. A little later, the hours allowed to be worked at normal time was reduced by thirty minutes a week, so we delayed opening until seven minutes after nine! Then the big stores campaigned for longer hours for at least one day a week. The government of the day were in agreement and the city retailers, remembering the busy late Friday trading of previous times, opted for Friday night, and said that suburban stores could have Thursday night, which they thought would not be as popular. Things had changed. Friday was no longer the universal payday, and many workers liked to start their weekends when they finished work on Friday; no time for shopping. Suburban stores did better than the city traders, so the big traders then pushed for even longer hours and, as we know, we now have them,

The future? Well Aldi, the German discount chain, is now in the Eastern States and is actively seeking a warehouse site in South Australia, but whether that is for immediate use, or for when they have further developed their eastern markets, cannot be said. Tesco is a big UK chain that at one stage were said to be looking at the Australian market, but with the problems in Europe, that does not seem likely. However, it must be said that the dominance of the two majors not only is not healthy for Australian retailing but almost certainly will not continue. I do not have a crystal ball so cannot tell you how the trade will evolve in the future, other than to say that the changes we have seen, where none of the retailers who were active in the town in 1973 are still operating, is a sign of constant change in the industry and that will continue.

Mike Johnson
Mike Johnson

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