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COVID lockdowns – the big get bigger while the small get smaller

In his most recent opinion piece, Theo Foukkare, CEO, AACS, highlights how lockdowns have disproportionately benefitted big business at the expense of small business.

We all understand why lockdowns are considered necessary to fight COVID-19. But one of the worst outcomes of these lockdowns is that they are socially inequitable.

The unfortunate truth is lockdowns disproportionately impact those who are already less well-off, forcing them to isolate in their smaller homes and apartments and preventing them from earning a living in their largely blue-collar and service industry jobs.

While many understand that small business has been hit by rolling COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures, what few may realise is the significant encroachment big business has made on market share during this period.

In fact, it would be fair to say, during the COVID pandemic, big business has gotten bigger, while small businesses have struggled to simply survive.

As far as health bureaucrats and politicians have been concerned, from day one of the pandemic there has never been any question that the big supermarket chains were an essential service and should remain open.

In contrast, we and other small business organisations have had to fight every step of the way to have it accepted that smaller convenience stores selling exactly the same essential products should be allowed to say open. Sometimes we have been successful, sometimes not.

For example, currently in most states’ lockdowns, small tobacconists are forced to shut. But the big supermarkets are allowed to stay open, selling exactly the same product. Apparently, they are safe whereas the smaller store is not.

Recently the NSW Chief Health Officer doubled down on this, encouraging supermarket shoppers to go to major chains, as opposed to the smaller local stores where they might meet friends and ‘congregate’.

I am not a health bureaucrat, but I suggest it could just as easily be argued that having people travel a shorter distance to their local convenience store, where they will mix with fewer people from a smaller area, is preferable to a potential super-spreading event at a large supermarket.

Since the start of the pandemic, authorities have also been strongly encouraging people to purchase online and through click and collect.

This has now gone to the extent where one major alcohol outlet’s operations are being reconfigured to allow consumers to simply pull up, open their boot, have their purchases loaded up and off they go in under a minute, while online orders from another can be delivered to your front door within the hour.

Meanwhile, small business without the resources to develop sophisticated websites or the ability to reconfigure retails sites to allow for drive through operations are struggling just to get by, and permanently losing market share.

To understand how badly the little guy is being treated, you only have to look at the approach of NSW Health with recent announcements that frontline staff at Woolworths, Coles, Aldi and IGAs in the locked down LGAs will receive their COVID jabs.

But if you work at a smaller convenience store or a small business there are no special exceptions to allow you to get your COVID jab as a priority.

What signal of small business frontline workers not having their COVID jab sends to the community is disturbing enough but it’s not just state health bureaucrats and politicians favouring big business during lockdown. A couple of weeks ago, the Federal Government announced that supermarkets would be allowed to employ foreign students in excess of the 40 hour per fortnight cap that currently applies.

Yet again, these measures do not appear to apply to smaller operators and convenience stores selling the exact same products.

Apart from being grossly unfair to the small operators during lockdown, all these measures drive permanent market share to the bigger supermarkets at the expense of the small operators.

They are the centre of our local communities and are particularly vital in regional areas and remote towns. Indeed, in times of lockdown and COVID restrictions, it has been local stores that have been most accessible and indeed most critical.

There are already too many empty corner stores and convenience outlets because of the encroachment of big business over recent years.

Let’s not make that worse.

Small business and convenience stores don’t want special treatment. We just want to be treated fairly and on the same basis as the bigger guys.

This article was written by Theo Foukkare, CEO, AACS, for the October/November issue of Convenience & Impulse Retailing.

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