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The biggest impacts of Omicron on business
Maxine Windram: Definitely staff shortages. We have had to close two Melbourne stores due to a team member with Covid and her colleagues being tested. From the start of the pandemic, our team has been front of mind, so even if we have 50 per cent of staff able to work, our policy is to close the store to minimise the stress on the other staff members. In our business, it takes three months to train a bra fitter ‘the Brava way’, so retention of our loyal staff is very important. Losing even one trained fitter can put pressure on others, so looking after and caring for our team is a priority.
Brittany Garbutt: It’s one big domino – we struggle with staff shortages, as they are all in isolation. Naturally, we then suffer lower sales, as our customers [are] also in isolation. We then struggle to get deliveries and stock, as their workers are also in isolation. It goes on and on. In essence, it’s a lockdown, only far more chaotic.
Avi Efrat: The biggest problem has been staff shortages brought about by massive Covid case increases and isolation requirements. Managing staff in isolation means a drop in sales as well, given 20 per cent more people are locked in the house undergoing isolation.
The biggest differences between Omicron and previous variants
Natasha Dwyer: We shut down during the four months [of Delta lockdowns]. Since we reopened in mid-October, it [had been] buzzing – lots of excitement, lots of people enjoying being outdoors. However, Omicron has made it like a ghost town once more. On the weekend, we had our first international tourists in two years. Now, it’s about being flexible, compassionate, and understanding.
BG: The biggest difference [is] the turnaround of the sickness. It is much faster, and we as employers don’t feel like we are placing our employees in the way of a deadly virus anymore. We do all we can to reduce the spread, of course. But when I get the notification that I have another positive case in my staff base, I don’t lose sleep, and neither do they or their colleagues.
We have confidence that it is almost inevitable and if someone does get the infection, they will likely not be hospitalised or [have] a serious condition. Our staff are sick for a few days and back to work in seven [days]. That means we can move on quickly.
MW: The biggest difference is [having] very limited government financial support [and] little or no financial assistance when stores are forced to close, because there is no JobKeeper this time.
Thoughts on keeping stores open
BG: I have given it a huge amount of thought. Am I doing the wrong thing by staying open? Am I contributing to the spread in a big way? Am I putting my staff at risk? The community at risk? And the answer is yes and no to all of those questions in equal proportions. The reason I have chosen to stay open (and not considered closing), is that I no longer believe that Covid is an issue to be dealt with by the community as a whole, but by individuals.
With the steady availability of the vaccine, high vaccination rates, and a far more educated community, we are all in a position as individuals to handle our own unique medical needs. I feel it is no longer our responsibility as businesses to put our needs aside for the community as a whole. At some stage, we do need to return to normal, and we must live through the impacts, so we can get to the other side. We’ve never been in a better position to do so – and personally, I don’t think we will ever be.
If our customers are happy to shop bricks-and-mortar, and we are happy to open for them, and our staff are happy to work, then I think business should continue to trade. If you are not happy to shop bricks-and-mortar, and you believe you’d like to close as a business, and your staff are concerned and do not want to work, that has to be [your] individual business’s choice.
ND: This morning, I had to have a Covid test due to a close contact. I now understand why businesses are shutting – I do not want to be responsible for passing it on to anyone. It’s way beyond my control, the government’s control, a landlord’s control – this comes down to common sense and common decency.
MW: Closing stores is not really a viable option. but when you don’t have the staff, you have no choice. When we have chosen to close, it has been [out of] caring for our team. Some customers have become aggressive. We were appointment-only [after] re-opening to try to take control and keep everyone safe, but if a customer travels for an hour and we are the only store that carries their size and appointments are full, she is going to be unhappy. There is never a time [when] rudeness is OK, but it’s something our staff are being confronted with.
At the start of the pandemic, with the first lockdown, our online sales doubled. Now, they have levelled out again. The online competition is pretty crazy right now. We are seeing our competitors slash prices by up to 80 per cent and starting sales.
AE: The only reason I’ll close a store will be [if] we don’t have [enough] staff. Look at hospitality; many are doing takeaway only, as they don’t have staff, and others have closed. A change to isolation needs to happen quickly to reduce retail’s chronic staff shortages.
How do you get through the crisis?
MW: To increase efficiency, we now ship online orders from the store, but none of our stores have been able to open back to normal trading. It means both [co-owner] Lin [Windram] and I are couriers, picking and packing orders due to staff shortages and closed stores. It’s hectic, but we are doing what is required to stay afloat. We do see a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s just very distant.
On a positive note, all our staff have stayed employed, some as virtual fitters. Others we have diverted into different roles, such as customer service, working from home. Our customers are happy once in-store, but rocking up to a closed store is not the customer experience we want to deliver.
ND: I wish the government understood and respected what small businesses bring to the community. I believe they should be doing a marketing plan [to] gently educate the public [and] show them why their money goes further with a small business. We have been doing it hard and have been overlooked.