Coronavirus update for business: Michael Hill closes some stores for good, beneath the unemployment stats, and Zoox seeks a buyer

Michael Hill

Beneath the surface

Yesterday’s announcement that the unemployment rate has jumped from 5.2% to 6.2% painted a pretty bleak picture, albeit falling short of the forecasted 8.2%. But, things may be even worse than they seem on the surface.

According to Jeff Borland, a professor of economics at the University of Melbourne, the figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics don’t necessarily paint the full picture.

The figures classify casual workers working zero hours, but who technically have a job to go back to, as employed. Also, people who are underemployed — not receiving the same number of hours as they were pre-pandemic — are not included.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the statistics don’t include people who are out of work but not actively seeking work as unemployed. In the past month, Borland wrote in an article on The Conversation, the labour force participation rate has fallen by 2.5 percentage points.

“Statistically, these people have vanished,” Borland wrote.

“They are not employed, but they are not counted as unemployed because they say they are no longer available for work.”

The WAy to recovery

The Western Australian government has launched a new $10.4 million Tourism Recovery Fund, offering small businesses in the space the opportunity to apply for a grant of up to $6,500.

The grants are available to businesses with annual taxable wages of less than $1 million. Businesses must also be part of an approved tourism association, or hold accreditation through an approved program.

Those associations and programs include regional tourism organisations, The Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council, and caravan park or eco-tourism programs.

Learn more about the eligibility criteria here. Grant applications close on June 12.

All that glitters

ASX-listed jeweller Michael Hill has announced that, while it is gradually starting to reopen some stores, COVID-19 has dealt a death blow to some “underperforming” stores.

Five Australian stores, three in New Zealand and one in Canada will not reopen post-crisis, a statement said.

The business, which has stores in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, was frank about the state of play in the retail space. While digital trading has grown over the past three weeks, it appears it’s not quite enough, and the business will continue to focus on cutting costs throughout.

Chief executive Daniel Bracken said he anticipates the next six months to be “challenging”.

The statement noted that the business has been in negotiations with landlords “to reach reasonable commercial arrangements that reflect the reality of the consumer marketplace and trading conditions”.

But, it also said further store closures are likely.

Halp is at hand

As COVID-19 has driven increased adoption of digital workplace management and remote collaboration tools, Aussie unicorn Atlassian — the king of such solutions — has acquired a startup bringing a helpdesk solution to your Slack channel.

Halp allows users to use emoji reactions to mark Slack messages as ‘tickets’ to be followed up on, and then tracks the progress of requests.

“Halp represents a new class of applications that are fundamentally changing how teams work,” Steve Goldsmith, Atlassian’s head of product and integrations said in a statement.

“As real-time messaging becomes more prevalent in the workplace, companies are looking for solutions that are embedded within the team messaging tools they’ve already invested in.”

Driven to desperation

Aussie-founded self-driving car startup Zoox is up for sale, with Forbes suggesting it may have struggled to raise funding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Founded in California by Aussie Tim Kentley-Klay, who was unceremoniously ousted in 2018, Zoox has raised almost US$1 billion to date, including from Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes and Aussie VC firm Blackbird Ventures. It was most recently valued at US$2.7 billion ($4.2 billion).

Since the pandemic hit, slowing investment activity in the US and all over the world, Zoox has reportedly laid off staff. Now, unable to attract the levels of capital it needs, it seems to be going down the route of new ownership.

Home birds

And finally, it’s not all doom and gloom in Silicon Valley. Twitter co-founder and chief Jack Dorsey has told employees if they want to work from home forever, they’re welcome to do so.

The social media giant was well placed to switch to remote work quickly when COVID-19 set in, Dorsey reportedly said in an email. And now staff have proven it works, he said.

“When we do decide to open offices, it also won’t be a snap back to the way it was before,” the company reportedly said.

“It will be careful, intentional, office by office and gradual.”

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