Murraylands retailers use down time to plan post-COVID resurgence

Collective Nook owner Ashley Thiele has been reshaping her business offering – and she's not the only one.

This article is brought to you by Regional Development Australia Murraylands and Riverland.

Entrepreneur Ashley Thiele runs two businesses: the Collective Nook, a gift and fashion store in Murray Bridge; and an art and design studio, the Brewed Artistry, at Mypolonga.

As a mother of two young boys, her life has been turned upside-down since COVID-19 hit in March, as she has had to adapt her business models while managing family life.

But smart strategic decisions have kept her operating – and succeeding – during the pandemic.

When it first hit, she analysed her businesses and developed a plan with a business mentor.

Her first move was to close her shopfront at Murray Bridge Marketplace and accelerate the Collective Nook's online presence.

"No-one was coming into the physical store, so it just wasn’t worth paying the rent," she says.

"I already had an e-commerce website in development, so accelerated the launch of that and plan to ramp it up again before Christmas, which is typically our peak trading period."

Her passion for supporting South Australian artists, creators and fashion designers has helped both her businesses stay in the front of people's minds during COVID-19.

She has also tapped into the knowledge she is developing through a Master of Business Administration she is studying online through the Murray River Study Hub.

"Through accessing my business support networks, and what I’m learning from my MBA, I’m able to trust myself on making big business decisions and take some calculated risks," she says.

"Without these two things in place, I don’t know what I would have done!

"While the business side of life has been a little bit crazy, I have flexibility with my online study; combined with access to great advice, this has allowed me to pivot both businesses to suit what I need right now."

Small businesses are using down time to refresh, reload

Regional Development Australia Murraylands and Riverland regional development manager Bruce Mellett says many other small business owners are also taking the time to grow their team’s digital skills or business capabilities, particularly in online sales and marketing, at the moment.

For some, doing so has been necessary to keep up with demand; others have simply taken down time as an opportunity to upskill.

"In talking with business owners, we know that having to make staff cuts, negotiating loans and rental payments while also applying for government funding has been stressful," Mr Mellett says.

"However, the sector has responded proactively to these challenges, with more than 50 per cent diversifying towards new offerings and many others accelerating plans for e-commerce."

RDAMR regional development manager Sandy Iosefellis says she has been inspired by the commitment of local retailers.

"Over the past two months we’ve seen a great deal of resilience and innovation from the retail sector," she says.

"Whether it’s the grocery sector tackling increased demand or the small, independent sole trader businesses forced to close their doors and move to online platforms, many are adapting at pace."

Mr Mellett urges businesses to take advantage of an offer of three hours of expert professional advice, for the price of a mid-range bottle of wine, through RDAMR's Business 2 Business program.

"Whether you need help with cash flow, HR and staffing, digital technology, or accessing government stimulus packages, make use of our heavily subsidised local business advice right now," he says.

One in three retailers is shut, but recovery may be quick

On the whole, data collected by RDAMR suggests the region's resilient retail sector is preparing to recover as COVID-19 restrictions ease from June 8.

While food retailers have been busier than at Christmas peak periods, activity levels at non-food businesses have varied.

An estimated 325 Murraylands and Riverland retail employees have either lost their jobs or been stood down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to ID Consulting.

Almost 90% of them are estimated to be on Jobkeeper payments.

Retail business activity is down by 10 to 100% compared with pre-COVID-19 levels, according to an ongoing RDAMR survey titled We Are Here.

Yet the region’s retail business owners are determined to come stronger than before, and to bring back their local staff.

So far only one survey participant from the retail sector fears they might not be able to reopen.

Almost half hope their staffing levels will be back to normal within six months.

The survey – which is still open – also shows:

  • 35% of retail businesses have seen a 100% drop in business activity

  • 79% are seeking government support

  • 50% have changed staff hours

  • 50% have innovated to find new business offerings

  • 36% are closed but intend to reopen

RDAMR is urging all local business owners to spend five minutes completing the survey.

Photo: Will and Co. Images: Regional Development Australia Murraylands and Riverland.