Judy Stranding

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Department stores are rare in country towns. DJs and Myer have tried operating in the regions, and generally failed. Yet an enduring Hastings enterprise has just expanded in Port Macquarie. Susie lunches with its manager and chief buyer.

Here she is, impeccable in a little black dress, immaculately groomed, with tasteful jewellery. As I enter the Peachtree Arcade Port Macquarie “branch” of The Department Store – Wauchope’s main street icon of more than two decades – Judy Standring’s artfully draping a scarf around a mannequin’s neck, to perfect effect. She turns to greet my hello, thinking I’m a customer: hands clasped neatly at waist level and with a welcoming smile. She’s no Mrs Slocombe (of the satirical TV series “Are You Being Served?”), more a charming Harry Gordon Selfridge (of the eponymous current series based on London’s famous department store). But Standring fills multiple roles: she’s not only manager of the 12-member Wauchope store team including two staff at the newly-expanded Port Macquarie outlet, but also its merchandiser and main buyer. A dream job, flying six times a year to Sydney and Melbourne to choose dresses, coats, accessories, shoes and so on, with a biiig budget? Just imagine: “I’ll have this, one of those, six of those, and a dozen of these! In every colour, thanks!” Ditto with kitchen and home wares: picture yourself surrounded by a treasure chest of the latest pans, coffee machines, china, silverware, labour-saving gadgets, and a big dresser to store them in – a cook’s delight.

 In fact, it emerges as we lunch at The Mullet on lobster tail and toothfish, Standring is a keen cook and entertainer; it’s her main recreational pastime. (She also correctly picks the provenance of the NZ Sauvignon Blanc we’re drinking). Of course her job’s not all such fun and games but a serious undertaking requiring she select items that suit trends, climate and customers’ needs, marketable at acceptable prices and, naturally, that support the bottom line. Margins must be met, stock controlled. “Everyone says ‘Have fun!’ [when she leaves on buying trips]. But it’s hard work, a big responsibility, because I’m entrusted to buy for the store and we’ve got to sell the product after all. You haven’t got a crystal ball! But it’s very satisfying when it all comes together; it’s very fortunate to be in a job you love.” She, with a colleague, naturally buys months in advance of stock appearing on the shelves: in mid-summer, for instance, for mid-winter fashion. She enjoys the creativity, setting the style of the store, although she pays tribute to “a good team”, scattering their names and role descriptions into our chat. Shoppers’ comments are flattering, remarking on friendly service and: “Better than David Jones!” said one.

Planning for the festive season starts in February; Christmas is big on the store’s calendar: last year one Wauchope window alone featured an opulent Great Gatsby theme, all black and gold pizzazz. Sometimes she sees furniture and soft furnishing items she’s chosen featured on TV’s The Block: “I think: I’m on the right track! But everybody’s different; I can’t just fill the store with everything I like; I have to cater for a wide variety of tastes and homes: contemporary homes, country homes. I have hundreds of designer magazines … and recipe books too.”

The eldest of seven born and bred in Tamworth, she and husband Laurie, a butcher at Woolies Lakewood, followed her parents – caterers at LUSC – here 35 years ago. Now the wider family’s entrenched; there’s her Mum, two sisters, brother-in-law, daughter Kim and son Ben, and six grandkids living in Port, Bonny Hills, North Haven and Lake Cathie: “I’m really lucky they’re all around.” With a background in pharmacy merchandising, Standring joined the store as a merchandiser and window dresser 20 years ago, then was lured back to pharmacy for nine years. Invited back to the store again, she ultimately became manager five years ago. The store’s staff, in 11 sections, are among hundreds employed by Hastings Coop in 12 enterprises including two IGAs in Wauchope, IGA Gordon Street, fuel outlets, farm and hardware supplies and liquor, run from High Street corporate HQ. Standring’s poised to make The Department Store the face of the Coop’s looming centenary. Now in its 99th year, it enters its 100th year of trading in December, triggering 12 months of celebrations.

Her deft touch and artful displays are notable in both stores. “I can’t draw a cat!” she protests, yet clearly has a sharp eye for colour and remarkable talent for attractive arrays. Guiding me around the Peachtree extension into kitchenware, she’s excited to point out the store’s exclusive quality lines: Scanpan, Le Creuset, French porcelain and so on. The original Port outlet opened over two years ago, the impetus: “We felt there was a need. Some people here on holidays don’t know Wauchope exists; our job’s to educate them that this is just a small taste of what’s available at Wauchope. And a lot of people working full time [in the CBD] don’t make the trip to Wauchope.

A lot do … but we’ve captured that other section of the market who don’t go across to Wauchope. They come in regularly so I rotate stock from Wauchope to give them different choices. Someone might have been to Wauchope, couldn’t quite decide on the dress, then they want it. We bring it in for them.” When, recently, the Port outlet expanded to fit in more kitchen and homewares merchandise, offering greater variety, Strandring was delighted. “It’d be nice to take over the whole arcade,” she laughs, only half-joking I think. She’s busy preparing for this month’s big bi-annual shareholder shopping day: discounts, special merchandise, cooking demos, brand reps in-store “and because we’re a local company we’ve tastings of local products like Ricardoes’ and The Other Chef”. Her busy life leaves little spare time but she likes it like that. She does admit to sometimes waking at 2am thinking of work.

Right now, though, she’s thinking of getting home later this evening … she’s promised to cook Laurie’s favourite, Italian meatballs, for dinner tonight.
Out To Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri
at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach

This article was from issue 116 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus.

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