Jeet Singh looks out his shop window in Clayton. There is not a lot to see these days.
From his vantage point on the corner of Carinish Road opposite the Clayton Station he can usually see hundreds of people going about their days, but on this day things are very different for the small-business manager.
It’s 11am and not a single customer has entered Clayton Discount Liquor. That’s unusual for a Monday, Singh says. “Normally we would have a customer every 15 minutes, grabbing chewy or a can of coke because they would be going somewhere, catching up with someone or going on the train.
“Now nothing. That’s all gone.”
Across the country, independent stores and small businesses are hurting. Research by YouGov Australia released in late March showed 40 per cent of small businesses reporting revenues dropping by at least half due to COVID-19, leaving many owners – including Singh – concerned about the future.
On the day we speak, Singh says foot traffic is down by 90 per cent and that there can be hours between customers.
“One time, it had been four hours since anyone had entered the shop and then one person came in and bought a stubby for $3.50. That was very disheartening.”
In the lead-up to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement on 23 March that all non-essential services would close as a part of stage one restrictions, confusion over what constituted ‘non-essential’ sent people into a flurry as they began to stockpile alcohol.
Photos quickly appeared of hordes emerging from bottle shops weighed down with cartons of alcohol in preparation for possible closures. The week ending March 27, alcohol sales from bottle shops jumped 86 per cent year-on-year according to CommBank credit card data.
But not at Singh’s independent liquor store “We were unfortunate that we didn’t get any of that mad rush.”
Being a small liquor store, Singh says the business is unable to compete with big brand stores such as Dan Murphy’s, Liquorland and BWS. The situation in Clayton has been exacerbated by its demographic, he says. Being so close to Monash University, the business relies heavily on domestic and international students living in the area.
When gatherings were restricted to two people to slow the spread of the coronavirus, university students were no longer able to socialise as they used to. And now, as restrictions start to lift, many can no longer afford to, with ABS data showing 835,000 Australians have lost their jobs since COVID-19 restrictions came into effect.
For Singh, the consequences are playing out in store. “There are definitely a lot less students coming in now because majority of international students have either gone back home overseas or have not come to Australia for the March intake.”
And it’s not just students.
As a member of the Clayton community, Singh has seen first-hand the trauma COVID-19 has inflicted on his customers. “People are exhausted. They are scared. They are stressed. Their partners have lost jobs. Their kids are home. They are the only ones earning. They cannot make ends meet. It is happening everywhere, and it is heartbreaking.”
He has also noticed a huge shift in what customers are choosing to buy. “Usually people wouldn’t [hesitate] to buy a good bottle of wine for $25 or $30. But now, people want to buy whatever is the most basic minimum one.”
But the biggest blow to his business has been the cancellation of parties and major events. A massive 50 to 60 per cent of his business was in catering events and supplying restaurants. With parties now cancelled and restaurants forced to close, Singh says there is a big question mark over the future of the business.
He is not alone in this. According to an ABS survey, two in five businesses have had to change how they deliver their goods or services. Like them, Singh is doing everything he can to stay innovative and stay afloat. “We’re changing with the times. We’re going online and creating a website. We’ll be putting more money into the business and hoping it might work.”
Despite the uncertainty, he is grateful to his regular customers who are continuing to support him.
“It won’t be much because quite a few of them have lost their jobs but whenever they can they’ll grab at least a beer or a bottle of wine. They are the ones who are really supporting us, otherwise we would probably be out of business.”
As the bills, rates, rent and interest continue to pile up, Singh knows there is every possibility the business will not survive. But he remains hopeful the world will emerge from this stronger and implores people to back their local stores.
“We are in this altogether, every one of us. We need to support our local, regular, day-to-day convenience stores. The small businesses, the small operators are always suffering.
“It may be $1 to $2 more expensive but local stores need the community to keep going otherwise they will disappear.”
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