EXPLAINER

Coronavirus: Expert advice for small business coming out of the coronavirus pandemic

Businesses have needed to adapt quickly to coronavirus. Bella Vista Restaurant at Belconnen had to reimagine itself for takeaway and change to retain staff. Bella Vista Restaurant manager Monique Swan. Picture: Jamila Toderas
Businesses have needed to adapt quickly to coronavirus. Bella Vista Restaurant at Belconnen had to reimagine itself for takeaway and change to retain staff. Bella Vista Restaurant manager Monique Swan. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Business is slowly reawakening from the hibernation brought on by coronavirus.

Seats in cafes are sparsely filled and takeaway lunches and dinners can be replaced with the full experience for some diners.

Rules have been relaxed, with hope in sight for further easing soon if case numbers stay down. But the landscape is vastly different, expectations have changed and businesses' agility has been tested.

As small business owners navigate the new world their livelihood operates in, we sought the advice of experts on what will be a difficult but innovative path ahead.

Is your business COVID safe?

It's been drummed into Australians from the outset of the crisis - Physical distancing, good hand hygiene and regular cleaning.

While restrictions vary between states and territories it is those simple things that are the key ingredients for any business moving through the pandemic.

Under national principles, businesses and workers must act on the latest health advice to actively control the spread.

Hunter Business Chamber chief executive Bob Hawes said health and safety practices had become an expectation of the public.

"People are more wary, if they look at a business that doesn't appear to have practices in place I'm sure (they) would be concerned by that," he said.

"We don't really want to see business receiving a negative response as a consequence of them not doing what's expected."

Essential changes have already become the norm in most retail and hospitality spaces. Staff count of the number of people in-store and hand sanitiser is available.

"We know quite a few of the restaurants and cafes for example have re-organised themselves," Mr Hawes said. "They are no longer the walk-in style places they were."

Australian Small Business and Enterprise Ombudsman Kate Carnell. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Australian Small Business and Enterprise Ombudsman Kate Carnell. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Adapting a business model is paramount for the new norm, Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Kate Carnell said.

"It's not the same world," and traders need to think creatively to meet a new demand.

Businesses are encouraged to create a COVID safe plan, introduce cleaning checklists and make changes to allow a 1.5m space between people.

Safe Work Australia have released industry specific guidelines for business to protect employees and employers.

How can I attract wary customers back to my business?

Reach out to your local community, get on social media, tell your story and have strict safety procedures in place, Mr Hawes said.

Since borders closed and restrictions keep people close to home many businesses have taken the opportunity to return to local advertising.

"Some of the stuff we've seen has been really quirky," Mr Hawes said.

Brochures announcing re-openings have begun popping up in letterboxes and businesses traditionally reliant on foot traffic have taken to social media to get attention, some traders going as far as "gimmick" promotions to reel people in.

Mr Hawes said many businesses that had previously avoided social media have taken to the primarily free and easy to update way to get noticed.

He expected the uptake of social media and digital promotion would become commonplace for business as a nimble medium to communicate with customers.

He said it had become an incredibly important part of engaging customers since the pandemic had pushed life online.

How can I look after my business financially?

Start planning now.

Bendigo Bank's head of business customers Andrew Smith has seen business through the initial "response phase" of the pandemic. With assistance programs now in place he said businesses needed to think ahead or risk simply delaying the damage.

He said businesses should create a financial response plan setting out their needs for the next six to 12 months.

Bendigo Bank's head of business customer Andrew Smith. Photo: Bendigo Bank

Bendigo Bank's head of business customer Andrew Smith. Photo: Bendigo Bank

"That would take into account things like the ongoing operational expenditure but also where they're at in terms of stock on hand, debtor collection, liquidity, and be able to, in a reasonable way, identify if there is a gap that needs to filled and what options they have to fund that gap."

Loan repayment deferrals, JobKeeper and the government's $40 billion SME Guarantee scheme have been lifelines for small business throughout the pandemic.

But Mr Smith warned the assistance would eventually dry up and hit business hard when it did.

Cash flow is going matter more than ever for small business, Ms Carnell said.

"There will be a whole range of things that you're going to start paying again ... after September," she said.

She said businesses should work out what income they needed to be making when assistance stopped and how their business model could generate it.

What happens if business is forced to close again? 

It is undeniable a second wave of COVID-19 cases, or a local outbreak, would detrimentally impact business.

"We are seeing still a lot of cautious behavior from business," Mr Hawes said.

Mr Hawes said the impact of closing down would be huge and highlighted the importance of hygiene and physical distancing practices.

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"(Businesses) are very conscious to make sure we're all in this together and trying to make sure not just customers and not just businesses are doing the right thing."

Ms Carnell said preparing a plan was a vital step. A plan for a potential outbreak should outline what equipment would be needed, how staff can isolate and how close contacts could be identified.

"You need to have a plan in place on what you're going to do so you can do it quickly and reopen as soon as possible."

"Stress with your staff members if they are feeling unwell, don't come to work, and that they will be supported."

Should your business embrace the digital age?  

Social media has become an easy and accessible way to communicate with your customers with many businesses using regularly updated social media accounts and high-tech websites to keep in touch.

"The ultimate answer to social distancing," according to Ms Carnell, who said business who didn't use would "miss the bus".

"Now is the time you really do focus on making those changes," she said. "It's the way business will be promoted, it's the way people know what's there."

This story Waking from hibernation? first appeared on Blue Mountains Gazette.