I fear for Australian small businesses struggling under lockdown. Here’s how we can help | Isabelle Oderberg | Opinion


My family history in my Melbourne suburb runs back to the 1950s, when my grandmother was a newly arrived, postwar immigrant from Europe. She ran the most famous of the Jewish bakery/delis, Monarch Cake Shop, a gastronomic legend in a crowded landscape.

Over the many years I’ve lived here, I’ve watched small, family-owned businesses come and go. But with every ounce of “progress”, we lose a little bit of the history, vibrancy and character that makes any local community what it is.

Now, as I walk around my neighbourhood during my one hour of exercise a day, I see the proliferation of closure and for lease signs, I wonder what will be left of my little community.

The flower shop whose owner used to babysit my pug for me while I ran across to the road to the fish shop. The beautiful family who run the $2 shop where I buy more plastic containers and clothes pegs than I could ever really need. The always smiling mum and son who escaped from Syria and opened a cafe that always smells of spiced coffee.

The latest for lease sign is in the windows of the hairdresser who has been here for as long as I can remember. My eyes fill with tears as I walk past; I had my hair done there for my high school formal.

A large number of businesses are going to go under during this lockdown, if they haven’t already. The real bite is yet to be felt but will come to pass when jobkeeper and jobseeker disappear or are reduced to an unliveable level.

Many of our neighbours and friends, especially in Melbourne, will be facing situations unthinkable just a year ago: zero income, mortgage defaults, unpaid rent, homelessness, hunger.

If you are lucky enough to still have your income, every penny you spend can make a difference to your community. It can keep small business afloat, stop closures, help keep people out of poverty. We need to be thinking about how to make our spending work hardest.

Going small

Shopping local and supporting small business is the obvious first choice. They don’t have the same financial flexibility or purchasing power of big chains and they need our support to survive.

In my family, we made a conscious decision that with zero excursions or meals out of the house in the near future, we could afford to recalibrate our household spending.

people in masks walk past fish and chip shop in Melbourne



‘Shopping local and supporting small business is the obvious first choice’ Photograph: Speed Media/REX/Shutterstock

We now do delivery or click and collect almost exclusively from our local fruit and veg shop, fish shop and butcher.

They’re businesses we’ve used for years and they know my name and face. Yes, it costs us slightly more, but it’s less than you might think and it’s worth it knowing they might make it through to the other side.

Eating in

Restaurant delivery services like Deliveroo and Uber Eats have made life and convenient easy for consumers, but they put incredible pressure on the bottom line for restaurants, thanks to their hefty commissions.

If you’re looking to order a meal from your local restaurant or cafe, call them and ask them their preferred method for you to get your sticky mitts on their food. Let them tell you what is going to help them stay afloat.

Many are keeping casual wait staff employed by using them to do deliveries directly, cutting out the third parties. Sometimes there’s an additional charge – please pay it if you can afford it.

Alternatively, pickup is an even better option if within distancing and travel guidelines, because it leaves delivery for the people who cannot do pickup, either because they live too far away, don’t have transportation or they’re at home with kids.

If you’re having a glass of wine at home, feel free to use your local bottle-o. But if you’re having a drink with your meal, consider buying your alcohol from whoever is selling you the meal. Alcohol is a higher margin product with a high upfront cost to businesses – money spent that’s doing nothing if it gathers dust on shelves.

Some try to make the argument that Uber is also employing otherwise jobless Aussies, but, when the restaurants go under, delivery companies won’t have anywhere to deliver from.

Side hustles

Local hospitality workers who have lost their jobs have been springing up in community groups online offering delicious home-cooked meals, chutneys, jams, bread, cake and so much more.

They’re advertising mostly on social media and though word of mouth. If you’re in Melbourne there’s a great list here of initiatives being run by hospo workers on visas who don’t qualify for social security.

Masks are a way of life now and we’ve spread the purchase of our masks across local residents who are seeking out alternative incomes and social enterprise operations such as Social Studio and Space2B who employ asylum seekers or newly arrived migrants.

These are also great places to find beautiful handmade gifts; what a beautiful way to treat someone in lockdown and brighten their day.

Buy secondhand

With time at home, many people who are not working are clearing out their houses of unwanted or unneeded items, but as the old adage goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Consider buying secondhand (if safe to do so) because you might be helping someone out and it’s also better for the environment. Look on Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace or eBay.

Members of one particularly lovely local community Facebook group I’m in regularly has people offering things for free from their homes; books, kitchenware, toys, clothes for those who can’t afford it. Contactless pickup is standard. If you have free things to offer, searching “pay it forward” and your neighbourhood on Facebook should point you in the right direction.

The arts

We know the arts have been particularly hard hit, with very little in the way of government financial support. Seek out your favourite writer, poet, DJ, artist, musician or anyone else. If they have a Patreon or any other subscription service, pay to join it.

Also, rather than streaming a movie on a Friday or Saturday, see if your favourite performers are doing events or shows online.

My favourite local DJ is doing weekday lunchtime sessions and Friday night gigs. They’re streamed live into my living room and I’m not ashamed to tell you that I’ve done my fair share of dancing in my underwear in the living room with the kids.

First Nations peoples

As always, if you want to support Aboriginal businesses or empowerment initiatives, ensure they are Aboriginal-owned and operated and that the information confirming this is up to date.

One great resource is Supply Nation, which maintains a database of verified Indigenous businesses so you can search to see if a business is in the database or hunt for new organisations with which to do business.

It’s important to double check, I’ve been caught out by businesses which were formerly Aboriginal-owned and run but have changed hands.

Charity donations

If you would like to donate to a charity, do your homework. There’s no one way to evaluate a charity, but you should choose an organisation whose mission resonates, read a recent impact statement and also look at their cost of fundraising (overhead costs like marketing).

Seek out organisations that are doing matched funding with the private sector (through platforms like Charidy) and you can double or triple your donation.

Service industries

For service industries like hairdressers or beauticians, consider calling and pre-purchase gift cards you can redeem later. It might make the difference between them being able to pay the rent this month or having to shut their doors permanently.

Before you log on and take advantage of free exercise videos, see if local fitness instructors are offering classes on Zoom.

If they’re beyond your budget for multiple sessions, you could just do one or two and set up a program, then use free videos to supplement your home workout.

No one will be untouched by this pandemic, but it’s irrefutable that some will be affected more than others and they are the people who were most likely in the lower paid, less stable employment demographics before the pandemic .

This virus will force a reckoning of what we want as a society and community going forward. Let’s start that reckoning now.



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