Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Deb: I first came to Armidale as a boarder at NEGS. After I left school, I studied business politics and then worked for my parents before starting my own business, Australian House Hunters, as I wanted to work for myself. This involved finding properties in Australia and the USA for clients , which was fun. Eventually, I sold that business and moved back to Armidale, but I continued to work for the people who bought my business. Then I took on the role of Commercial Services Manager at UNE. However, I’m not all about business; I love being creative and in 2016 started making earrings under Pinotcat Designs. This passion led me into starting The New England Collective with Tracy and several other locals. A redundancy from UNE was the catalyst for me to go full-time in the business; it clarified my goals.
Tracy: I studied science and completed a DipEd at UNE, then headed back out Narrabri way to teach and later work in the cotton industry. Meeting my husband, who is from Armidale, resulted in me moving back here in 2000. Since then, I’ve done a lot of things, including teaching textiles at a local school, working at Fabric Fair and UNE. I’m a dressmaker and have always sewn for other people. I started my own business, Raw Fibre, in 2016, making clothing and selling in my shop in Armidale. My creativity is expressed through my work as an accomplished seamstress, which combines with my experience in the clothing business. I love making women feel good about themselves, regardless of their age and shape. It was a natural transition to start The New England Collective as it provided a joint space for all of us to sell our products.
What does The New England Collective do?
Deb: The New England Collective supports local and regional makers to launch and sell their products in a retail environment. We stock a large range of giftware, food, eco and beauty products from local, regional, Australian and select international makers.
When did you start your business?
Tracy: We first opened in 2018 with a pop-up for Mother’s Day. Our first shop was in Hanna’s Arcade. To start with, we had five partners, all with experience through local markets. We also sold items for many other makers who rented space from us. The range continued to expand and eventually we outgrew our shop in the arcade. Due to COVID-19, that shop closed at the end of March 2020, but that was the beginning of our journey to open our gift shop in the Armidale Mall.
Why did you choose giftware?
Deb: There was a huge gap in the Armidale market that we aimed to fill. As makers ourselves, we looked for other makers to support, firstly from Armidale, then regional Australia, then Australia more widely and then overseas. Our reputation is for quality products that are a little different from those you could purchase in other shops in Armidale, and we strive not to stock anything similar to anyone else.
Tracy: We are proud of the fact that approximately 40% of our business is still from local makers. Another huge component is supporting other small businesses and makers from around Australia. We love adding new things, keeping it fresh and finding new favourites. However, we are selective and curate the products to support our current makers.
What have been some of your challenges?
Deb: Closing our store in March 2020 was a big challenge. We were so unsure as to what the future held, and people were concerned about going out and spending money. We wanted to move to a bigger space and a month later, a space became available in the Armidale Mall. This tripled the shop in size, but we were incredibly nervous. It was impossible to know whether people would come and buy gifts during COVID or whether we would go broke! From the day the shop opened, it was busy; it worked. The space is amazing!
Tracy: Some of our original makers are still with us in the new space and many new ones have come on board since. As the word spreads, we continue to receive an increasing number of enquiries from local creatives and Australian businesses wanting us to stock their products. It is humbling to think people see The New England Collective as such a desirable place for them to sell their products.
What do you like most about running your own business?
Deb: We enjoy diversity; no two days are the same. We’re ultimately customer-focused and the feedback from them is so satisfying. The ability to change a person’s mood through a process such as changing the window displays is also very uplifting.
Tracy: Every day goes so fast, filled with freedom, fun and laughter. We’re both made for being our own bosses and so blend well.
What advice would you give a business just starting out?
Deb: A couple of years ago, I would have said, “Just do it”, but I’m not sure that works now. What we have done is solve two problems – our own, by selling our products, and the local need for a gift shop. So now I would say, “Solve a problem”.
Tracy: My advice is to do a lot of planning. You have to follow your dreams and listen to your gut, but you need to look at what’s already out there, especially in a small town, and determine what the market needs.
What inspires you?
Deb: We love what we do; the passion comes from within and from the people who come in. The other day, someone said, “This shop is like sunshine, I walk in here to make myself feel better.”
Tracy: The customers inspire us; we both love people. Listening to people’s requests and suggestions is the key to understanding the needs of the town. A lot of our new products have come from suggestions from local people, which they get a kick out of.
What is your secret for success?
Deb: A partnership can be hard; you have to be flexible and willing to change. For us, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well we get on. We are such different people, with diverse interests, that our division of labour happened almost automatically. Tracy deals with people and stock and I focus on presentation, such as the beautiful window displays, website and socials. We have different tastes and choose different products, but they just sell.
Tracy: We also know when to pick our battles, how to respect what’s important to each other. Although we spend a lot of time together, we’ve never fought. It’s essential to talk through issues and don’t dwell – keep moving forward.
What’s next for The New England Collective?
Deb: We are always looking for ways to grow and broaden the range we can offer our customers – you never know where this might lead. We will also build our website and our online sales. As we develop, we want to give back to the community, so will continue to hire as many locals as possible.
Tracy: In the next couple of months, we will launch our own label, The Collection, by The New England Collective. This is a very exciting step. People can check out our website and sign up for our newsletter to stay in touch.