If you grew up glued to the TV as some of us were, you may remember this funny old lady. You might have smiled as she used her elderly belligerence to implore you to buy a washing machine, but then threw in an interest free period as if to remind you that the kindly granny look wasn’t entirely an act. You might have cringed as she attempted to entice you into her complex from a bubble bath. You might also have wondered whatever happened to Joyce Mayne, the doyenne of discount whitegoods in the dying decades of the 20th century.
Born in London, Mayne started out as an actress (and who’s surprised, given those ads) and a tap dancer. She arrived in Sydney in 1956, and the very next day got a job selling TVs at a shop in Penrith. A background in demoing gas and electrical appliances back in England, not to mention being the first woman to pass her all-male management course, didn’t hurt. When the shop owner’s wife learned that *gasp* a woman was selling TVs, she demanded Joyce be fired and replaced by a respectable gentleman. Unperturbed, Mayne went on to a job managing an electrical goods store in the same area, and in 1973 opened three of her own outlets. So great was her devotion to astrology that staff were recruited according to their star signs. “We prefer to employ Sagittarians, Scorpios, Capricornians and Aquarians – they’re the birth signs that produce the best sales people,” Joyce told the Sydney Morning Herald in January, 1979 – the eve of her greatest triumph as a retailer.
The ‘Joyce Mayne Shopping Complex’ on Parramatta Road, Auburn opened amid controversial circumstances in early 1980; filling the void left in the electrical retail scene by the 1978 death of Keith Lord, Joyce had the balls to hold the grand opening on a Sunday despite Sunday trading being completely illegal for a company of her size at the time. Damn. By exploiting a loophole in the law – subletting the 25 shops that made up her complex, thereby establishing herself and her tenants as equals – she was able to cash in on the more than 7,000 shoppers the centre would receive each Sunday. The downside? As a tenant, you had to endure the indignity of managing a store with a name like ‘Joycie’s Jean Barn’ (an actual 1982 store name), but for Joyce herself, business was booming. Aside from an abortive flirtation with car sales in 1982, Joyce stuck largely to whitegoods and furniture, with locations soon sprouting at Taren Point, Camperdown, Alexandria and Newcastle. So involved was Joyce with the business that you’d often find her manning the registers during busy weekends. I bet you didn’t see Jean Lord doing that.
Once she’d created the Joyce Mayne chain, she quickly became a star of Sydney television in a long-running series of commercials. Anyone who watched late night commercial TV between 1978 and 1996 would at some point have caught a glimpse of Mayne’s ads, which showcased a shameless, unique kitsch and a garish sense of glamour, even for that era. This was in an age where furniture and whitegood chain owners all had a crack at fronting their own commercials, thus forcing an unsuspecting public to invite the vacant John Coote or the reptilian Gerry Harvey into their living rooms on an uncomfortably regular basis.
Joyce’s borderline offensive commercials, including one involving Mayne enjoying a bubble bath with Mafia types and making them offers they couldn’t refuse, didn’t immediately endear her to the public (something the low, low prices and interest free periods must have done instead). A subscriber to the ‘any publicity is good publicity’ tenet, the ads kept coming despite the public’s distaste. So too the profits – by 1990 Mayne, Harvey and Bing Lee had risen to the top of the industry. The woman herself attributes her winning ways to astrology (and a lifelong love of gambling, particularly on the horses). She took the riskiest punt of all in 1985 when she published Joyce’s Winning Ways, a bizarre part-memoir in which she claimed the stars picked winners. Unfortunately for Joyce, the stars never divined any victory for her own horse, Defilace.
In 1986, Joyce began winding down her involvement in the brand she’d fronted for so long, with hopes of retiring to Queensland. She’d spent the year writing a never-released followup to Joyce’s Winning Ways (perhaps she’d discovered a few more) and had fallen in love with the Sunshine State, retiring to Townsville in the late 80s but sporadically appearing in further, increasingly cantankerous TV ads in Sydney. In just a few short years she was calling herself Queensland’s Leading Progressive Astrologer, and claimed she could forecast up to ten years into the future. Given that the ads seemed to stop in about 1996, it makes you wonder…did you see this coming, Joyce?
Information on the end of Mayne’s life is scarce; she appears to have died in Townsville sometime prior to 2006, in relative obscurity. This obituary of Bing Lee’s son and Mayne contemporary Ken Lee (d. 2007) mentions that ‘the reclusive multimillionaire was last seen at the funeral of Joyce Mayne‘. Just to make sure she was dead, right Ken? The electrical retail industry is cutthroat, as evidenced by the way Mayne’s turf was carved up after her death. 1998 saw ubiquitous retail overlord Gerry Harvey step in to purchase the Mayne stores for his wife to run. Something feels very…misogynistic about that. The Joyce Mayne brand name has since been banished from Sydney, with only a handful of outlets remaining in regional NSW and Queensland. Six of Mayne’s seven ageing stores inherited by Harvey Norman were rebranded Domayne in 1999 and given a more upmarket makeover; gone were the lurid pinks and greens and all the associated tacky charm, replaced with a sleek modern finish and a very cold, corporate feel.
And so it is at Auburn, formerly the site of the aforementioned Joyce Mayne Shopping Complex. The complex has been largely replaced by a Harvey Norman outlet and the Domayne centre itself…it’s a far cry from the pink and brown monument splashed all over town in Mayne’s commercials throughout the 1980s.
But Joyce’s spirit lives on in this, the only feature in the entire complex that still bears her name. Yes, every time an item is taken away from the premises without a receipt, a part or fitting is pinched from a unit, a graffiti artist damages the property or the 99.99% of sensible, honest people feel the need for an apology, Joyce and her legion of invisible security cameras are there. The brutal juxtaposition of strongly worded threats in a bold, dangerous font signed by Mayne’s dainty typeface is classic Joyce, and wouldn’t seem out of place in one of her ads.
It’s sad that a pioneer like Mayne has been so thoroughly relegated to the annals of history, but by making herself the brand, Joyce may have inadvertently brought it on herself. Who was the real Joyce Mayne? An amusing excerpt from the SMH interview, January 1979 provides little illumination:
‘”And in another life I’d like to be a criminal law barrister,” she added mysteriously, without further explanation.’
Perhaps that life is being lived now, and maybe someday the full story will be told. For the time being, as always, if you know more, let Past/Lives know. Vaya con dios, Joycie.
Gerry Harvey and his Harvey Norman retail empire may still be prominent and sometimes newsworthy today, but spare a thought for Norman Ross. In 1961 Harvey and his business partner Ian Norman opened their first electrical store here at Arncliffe, calling it Harvey Norman Discounts. After its success, the two decided to start a chain but couldn’t agree on a name, so they picked the name of the store’s manager, and in 1962 the first Norman Ross store opened. In 1965, this Arncliffe store’s name was changed to Norman Ross. This site saw its share of controversy in 1978, when the ever-provocative Harvey broke the hymen of Australian retail innocence and defied a NSW Government ban on after hours trading. The store remained open long after the midday closing time required by law. Shoppers poured in to the five-level store, drawn like moths to the flame of novelty and controversy, as if they couldn’t have bought that toaster a few hours earlier. Harvey risked jail time and heavy fines with the move, but it seemed to pay off.
Norman Ross was doing pretty well by 1982, when both the Coles Group and Alan Bond, the man who was allergic to money, decided they wanted a piece of the action. Coles won out after a fierce bidding war, but Bond bought the chain from Coles just three weeks later. Both Harvey and Norman were instantly sacked, but then immediately started the Harvey Norman discount chain, which flourished while Norman Ross struggled in its Bondage. Bond being Bond, the writing was on the wall for Norman Ross as soon as he took over, and it went into liquidation in 1992. In what could be seen as a patronising move, Harvey has resurrected the Norman Ross name for his stores in New Zealand. Let’s take a moment to process that – he didn’t want to attach his own name to anything over there, and would rather use the soiled, besmirched name of a failed Australian retail operation from two decades ago to sell fridges and Dells. You’d think Bond was still in charge.
But while Gerry Harvey whines to anyone who’ll listen about the unfairness of online trading, the store that he built his empire on still sits on the Princes Highway, and it’s here that for Norman Ross, the writing is still on the wall. After the chain was wound up, the store became a Hardly Normal outlet for a time, but for the last few years it’s housed a variety of fly-by-night furniture retailers. I don’t mean to cast aspersions on Jacobs Furniture, but I don’t think even Alan Bond’ll be taking out his chequebook for this one anytime soon. Even at 50% off.