REAL AUSTRALIA

Voice of Real Australia: Arnott our big brands worth holding onto?

Voice of Real Australia is a regular newsletter from Australian Community Media, which has journalists in every state and territory. Sign up here to get it by email, or here to forward it to a friend. Today's newsletter is written by Illawarra Mercury journalist Ben Langford.

Growing up in the country, once or twice a year mum would take us for a big clothes shopping trip to the city - usually at David Jones; back then it had good service and a range of quality clothes for tall people.

Wollongong or George Street, Sydney, would be the scene, and while the shopping exercise seemed interminable, there was usually a lasagne at a cafe overlooking a mall, or perhaps a bowling alley later to make it bearable.

David Jones was a destination, a foundation. But its decision last week to cut 120 jobs - 28 from the Wollongong store - marks a further rupture in its relationship with regional Australia. Staff with 30 and 40 years' experience were among the first shown the door amid claims that signing customers up for email lists mattered more than good service.

I'm not too sad for DJs - service has been sagging for years and few of their products interest me. But it's sad for those towns and cities that lose jobs and options. And it's sad DJs hadn't done a better job of staying relevant by evolving with the wants and needs of the communities it serves.

BIG BOX RETAIL: In 1966 the new David Jones store in Wollongong was a landmark both in size and economic development.

BIG BOX RETAIL: In 1966 the new David Jones store in Wollongong was a landmark both in size and economic development.

Meanwhile, Arnott's is being sold - from one US giant (Campbell's soup) to another (KKR & Co). Carlton & United brewers has been sold to Japan's Asahi - from Anheuser-Busch InBev. (Yes, VB was owned by Budweiser.)

Proud manufacturers, foundation stores, often beloved in their communities, long ago became brands for the trading, usually between the titans of capital far removed from our towns.

Down a rung in the prestige stakes, Kmart and Target, owned by the same company (Wesfarmers), are measured not on whether they fill a need in their town, but on how well they do in an asset portfolio. If the division isn't growing, cuts will come.

Sure, retail is tough, change is constant, and there's no point shouting at the future telling it to keep its distance. To live in the past is to die in the present, some American said. Probably stole the line.

What's the answer? I don't know. Perhaps that's why I'm neither rich nor the leader of a movement. But when changes come, it's worth asking ourselves whether it makes the place better or worse.

And it's worth talking about why they happen - DJs' "crisis" came while sales were still growing - but at 0.8 per cent, not fast enough.

The issue is not foreign ownership - unless they lose touch. It's that supposedly unique stores or products are in fact controlled by a small few behemoths, when capitalism is meant to rely on competition.

From Goulburn to Forbes to Figtree, in smaller cities and towns, the larger stores anchor the CBD, and the asset portfolio is not what matters to a local economy.

Ben Langford,

Journalist, Illawarra Mercury

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