There is a mass wave of uncertainty spreading around the world as the full impact of Covid-19 is being realised country by country.
Locally, we don't know how bad, how long and how much damage the virus will cause to our people, our communities, our businesses and the economy as a whole. It's become an uneasy waiting game.
In Newmarket, we have already noticed that consumer behaviours have somewhat changed in recent weeks. Since the first New Zealand coronavirus case was reported on February 28, (and based on anecdotal feedback I received), many of our local Chinese residents started self-isolating. These families were already in daily communication with relatives in mainland China, and knew all too well the full extent of what had happened there. Secondly, our senior consumers day-by-day appear to be staying away and reducing shopping trips or visits to cafes and restaurants. And thirdly, our corporate workforces began testing their Business Continuity Planning (BCP) protocols and many are starting to work from home to reduce social contact. Office workers catch buses, trains, buy coffees and lunches and do other discretionary shopping every day. This will drastically impact foot traffic everywhere, so the flow-on effects for retailers are very real.
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The $12.1 billion business support package for the New Zealand economy announced by Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson, is a very welcome one. For instance, the fact that the wage subsidies and sick leave assistance are universal is especially impressive.
Although these support initiatives will go some way to help businesses that are struggling, the harsh reality is that it doesn't go far enough for many other businesses – small, medium and large, who are about to face the fight of their lives for survival.
However, these circumstances aren't unique to our precinct, this situation is universal, and these same challenges are being faced by the entire global community. When our own Prime Minister stated that the economic impact of coronavirus could be bigger than the GFC, it really showed the enormity of the situation that we are dealing with – even without knowing the full scale of the impact, yet. What is clear is that the scale of this will be huge.
The tourism, retail and hospitality sectors will no doubt be wondering how they will get through. There is no easy answer, and it's going to be a matter of doing absolutely everything. Everyone should, of course, reach out for government assistance if they meet the criteria, and if they don't meet the criteria today, they may well do in the upcoming days, weeks and months ahead. If coronavirus spreads widely (and follows what's happening overseas), the vast majority of the population will remain relatively unscathed, possibly get a bit sick and then carry on. However, others (particularly the elderly) may not be so lucky.
First and foremost, staff welfare is the main priority, so make sure you follow all Ministry of Health guidelines. Additionally, customer-facing businesses should avoid body contact with others and minimise having to touch keypads and consumers' debit and credit cards as much as possible.
In light of this, I have proactively reached out to one of our major banks asking for the contactless payments fees to be waived, given that no one wants to be touching Eftpos keypads at the moment. Contactless payments are just one small way of reducing potential contaminations. It's good to see ANZ have just taken the first steps towards this by offering free contactless debit transactions for small business customers, until June 30.
Thankfully (at least, for the immediate future) there will be many customers who will continue shopping and eating or drinking at bricks and mortar establishments.
Consequently, businesses should implement thorough cleaning protocols – have hand sanitiser available for customers to use, as well as plenty of soap and hand towels in the bathroom too. Within the past 24 hours alone, I have received dozens of emails from retail and hospitality brands outlining what steps they are taking to sanitise their premises to give customers peace of mind, I've also seen that a number of restaurants are spacing out tables so diners can feel a sense of distance from others too.
Business owners also need to ensure their e-commerce is effective and functioning properly. Online sales may become a vital lifeline to keep business going in the coming weeks and months. In addition, overseas online purchases may encounter supply chain and freighting issues, creating an opportunity for those with local inventory to sell as much as they can. Hospitality businesses may have to consider whether they have the capability to implement a delivery model, if they don't already have one in place. I note Uber Eats has announced a raft of measures to support independent restaurants including making up to $5m in funding available for promotions on Uber Eats; no service fees on pick up orders for all restaurants; waiving sign on fees for new restaurants coming onto the platform, including caterers.
Finally, I would also strongly urge business tenants to have honest and frank conversations with their landlords, sooner rather than later. And I call on those landlords to be empathetic and get in tune with the reality of what is happening and the immense hardship facing tourism, retail and hospitality tenants. If walk-in trade hasn't dropped yet, it will and will continue to.
The only way we can all get through this, is if we work together, we follow all the recommended health protocols, and while we can, and for as long as we can, we should all make a concerted effort to support our local businesses – because this is their livelihoods that are at stake.
- Mark Knoff-Thomas is the CEO of the Newmarket Business Association