Lockdown in Victoria
Melbourne, like many other cities around the world, has experienced the predations of SARS-CoV-2. With lockdowns, social distancing measures and mask wearing all coming into play, expected economic outcomes have been realised. Namely: the rise in on-line commerce, the fall in hospitality turnover, supermarkets seeing a rise in patronage, and health and fitness sectors retreating.
This coastal city of 5 million in Australia’s south eastern province of Victoria recorded its first COVID-19 infection in late January 2020, which led to an initial wave of infections that crested in late March. While seemingly in check at less than 30 new cases a day during April and May, the Victorian state government introduced increasingly strict public health measures from early July as cases climbed toward 700 infections every day. Public health measures were slowly eased from late October as new case and death counts trended toward zero.
It was this four-month lockdown that saw the national economy in general, and the Victorian state economy in particular, crumple. Though government financial support flowed, life was disrupted. Working and learning from home were mandated. Businesses in retail, hospitality, personal services, tourism and the like were shuttered. People complained, most found resilience. Everybody in Victoria worked toward a COVID-normal Christmas.
Individual Business Responses
Driven by Values
For people running personal services businesses, like Julie with her business, The Base Yoga, this new economic and public health reality was a challenge. Though she had been in business for several years, the choices she made to successfully see it through to the other side of the long winter of lockdown rested on her “why”. Why did she get into the business? Why is she doing what she is doing? All other decisions and outcomes flowed from this core value. For example, what did she need to do to look after her clients, how could she support her seven staff, what skills did she have to keep the business operating at some capacity?
She surprised herself with her digital skills. Video-based communication was established with security wrappers through social media. There was the hard slog of re-arranging financial arrangements for clients. There was the unforeseen hurdle of ensuring staff and client privacy in the delivery of online sessions in comparison to a normal studio experience. There was the selection of technology that would be easy and safe for staff and clients to use.
The one lesson that she has learnt in all of this is this: “2020 has taught me that we need human interaction.”
One the other hand, Kerr, who runs Gavin and Morris Village Butchers, for the most part was able to keep things ticking along. While he saw a significant drop in sales to his hospitality clients, he was able to maintain and grow his base of retail customers.
Apart from the dynamics of having a main street location during the lockdown, his proactive stance to the unfolding situation early in the public health event ensured that his retail income remained healthy. With the knowledge gained from both watching what his competition was doing, as well as keeping an eye on the restrictions the New Zealand government had placed on his industry, he decided to supplement the operations with an online ordering and delivery system. And, as with Julie, Kerr maintained a focus on the value at the heart of the business.
In Kerr’s case the key value is quality. This focus on quality had, in the past, led to an award for Australia’s best ham.During the months of lockdown it had led to COVID-safe queues of customers outside of his shop. It also provided confidence to those using the shop’s online services that nothing had changed, apart from the delivery system of the product. And this was the one lesson that the pandemic reinforced to Kerr: “we stuck to the quality, and we made sure we looked after our customers.”
Innovation Brings New Benefits
Rod, one of the directors of the Pakenham branch of OBrien Real-Estate, had a similar outcome to Kerr. Rod predicted that the whole lock-down experience would be “business as usual but in an unusual way.” His long experience in the industry taught him that people have to live somewhere, but you just need to find a way through the change. And they did.
That meant the introduction of several digitally-based innovations. One was delivering a 360-degree camera to the house seller, with simple instructions, so that they could provide prospective buyers a reasonable level of familiarity with the property. Another was holding auctions using video conferencing technology, with spectators watching through social media. A third way was holding daily morning video conferences so that staff could feel connected with each other and maintain their mental edge. And finally, Rod implemented digital documentation. While the pandemic brought forward the introduction of this particular technology throughout the business, an unforeseen benefit has been to improve the efficiency of the sales process and the productivity of staff.
For Rod, one of the lessons was that they did find a way to keep forward momentum in the face of a challenge, though, he explains, “We had to experiment, to see what would work.”
Local Government Responses
Throughout all of this, and supporting the nearly 30,000 businesses in the local area, was the Economic Development team of the City of Casey Council. Through the thousands of email and phone contacts they had with members of the local business community they enhanced their reputation, deepened their understanding of the community, and strengthened many relationships.
Their approach was a three-stage approach. Survive, defined by the word “uncertainty”, was the stage of support and information delivery. Thrive, was getting businesses to the acceptance stage of the grieving process. And Revive, which is all about refreshing and re-launching programs.
Toward life after lockdown
The COVID-19 pandemic here in the City of Casey, home to the three businesses discussed, has brought out the best of the local business community. It has brought about the opportunity to innovate, it has surprised us through the inadvertent strengthening of our resilience muscles, and it has developed a sense of shared experience amongst us all.
© Paul Tero, Nov 2020
PhD Candidate (Swinburne)
MBA (Tech Mgmt), MoB (Int Bus), MSTRAFOR, TAE
ITIL, MCSE, PRINCE2, TOGAF, AWS-CP
CMACS (IT Strategy), MAPF