Remote community retailer Outback Stores has notched up a record number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people employed in its stores, but posted a loss in the 2017-18 financial year.

On the shop floor, the organisation now has more than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working across its 38 stores, or 85 percent of its workforce.

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But the Commonwealth organisation, which has a mandate to provide affordable and nutritious food to remote Aboriginal communities reported a total operating loss of  $147,155 for the 2017-18 financial year, compared to a $63,638 profit the previous year.

Outgoing chairman Stephen Bradley said low returns available on cash investments had contributed to the loss.

“A major contributor to this result was the low returns available to our cash investments caused by the low interest rate environment,” Mr Bradley said. “We are currently pursuing an alternative investment strategy to improve our overall return with appropriate mitigation of risk.”

Mr Bradley, who retired from the board in August after 11 years with the organisation, said total sales from Outback’s 24 stores in the Northern Territory, 11 in WA and three in South Australia were $80.2 million for the period.

He said the board was focussed on Outback Stores becoming independent and self-funded.

“Our objective is for the underlying operating business to be financially self-sufficient so that we can fund our core operations, support unviable stores and achieve our social outcomes without the need for further ongoing government subsidy,” he said.

Twenty-five of Outback’s 38 stores were commercially viable in the last financial year and generated a profit, but others were not, due to small populations and extremely remote locations, according to the organisation’s annual report.

Chief operating officer Evan Ralph said employment opportunities at the stores had important benefits for the local communities.

“We have been working really hard on engaging more people with work,” Mr Ralph said. “Earning an income, learning new skills and making a positive contribution to the community are all really important.”

“We are also seeing more talented young people in communities wanting to pursue a career in retail, with the future goal of becoming store managers.”

Outback Stores’ focus on working with communities to improve health and nutrition also saw a total of 7.6 tonnes of sugar removed from the diets of customers over the previous year as people switched to less sugary drinks and more water and diet options.

An extra 24 tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables were sold on the previous year.

Chief Executive Officer Michael Borg said both results represent Outback Stores’ commitment to making healthier choices easier in remote community stores.

Dr Sue Gordon has taken up the post of Outback Stores chairperson.

By Wendy Caccetta