Australia’s bushfire crisis has left small business owners across the country reeling as the traditionally busy summer trading months shrink away in the face of emergency tourism warnings and evacuations.
With thousands of properties already lost and millions of hectares of land burned, shop owners from Toowomba, Queensland to Lakes Entrance, Victoria say they and their communities are facing an uncertain future.
But even as fires continue in many parts of the country, Australians are coming together to support communities devastated by the natural disasters. In part, they’re shopping local in an effort to ensure small businesses don’t fold under the economic strain of the events.
More than 118 small businesses have been inundated with financial support in recent days through their participation in the It’s My Shout e-commerce platform.
Get daily business news.
The latest stories, funding information, and expert advice. Free to sign up.
Set up earlier this week by Shop My Town founder Melody Jarvis and East Gippsland business owner Tenille Bull, the platform is providing Australians across the country with a way to purchase virtual goods and services from small businesses in affected areas.
Despite being live for just a few days, thousands of Aussies have already flocked to the initiative to purchase everything from accommodation to coffee and other goods.
For Lakes Entrance business owner Mal Monteith, who has been trying to trade and support her three children through the crisis, the platform has resulted in more than $3000 in much needed revenue.
“Over the last 48 hours it’s been huge,” Monteith tells SmartCompany.
“Everyone is still in a bit of shock, and the fires aren’t even out yet.
“The whole community is still on edge.”
Monteith says her family business relies on tourism dollars in the summer months to make it through quieter periods in the Winter, but that trading in recent days had been worse than the cafe’s slowest days from last year.
“At the end of the day, it is what it is, and there’s probably people worse off than we are,” the business owner says, outlining her support for the thousands who have lost their homes so far.
Some clothing stores in Lakes Entrance had gone into thousands of dollars in debt after stocking up for what they had expected would be a bumper tourism season in Victoria’s east, only to be left trying to clear products at steep discounts.
Matt O’Donnell, owner of Lakes Entrance coffee and catering business Albert & Co., has been similarly affected, telling SmartCompany his sales are down 85% on January last year.
“It’s destroyed our trading, we’ve had summer staff I’ve had to lay off,” he says.
The virtual purchasing platform has helped immensely, he says.
“We’ve had a huge response,” O’Donnell says, “We’ve handed out more than 1,600 coffees.”
It’s My Shout is designed to help them shop local, in an effort to ensure small businesses don’t fold under the economic strain of the events.
Purchases through the platform are intended as donations, so that businesses can pass on services to others directly effected by the fires. For example, by purchasing a coffee to be handed out to a member of the community, or by paying for a room, which can be used to house a family.
Speaking to SmartCompany, Jarvis says the initiative is a way for Aussies to support small businesses and individuals effected by the bushfires in one go, without visiting dangerous areas in person.
It comes as goods donated with the best of intentions are reportedly creating additional issues for emergency services workers and affected communities.
“Everyone wants to give, but it has to be sustainable,” Jarvis says.
The recovery effort for the fires will be a long-term task that will play out over several years, she notes.
Jarvis says one shop owner on the platform has been so busy fighting the fires themselves as a volunteer firefighter that he’s been unable to trade his business, putting him in a precarious financial position.
But over the past 48 hours, Australians have been directing financial support his way to ensure he’ll have a store to go back to.
“These business owners are under a lot of pressure and stress … it’s about helping people with the ability to contribute with a small act,” Jarvis says.
In recent weeks, several other prominent community initiatives have also popped up in an effort to direct support directly to independent firms in the retail, tourism and services sectors — helping business owners by opening wallets in their time of need.
They include social media campaigns like Turia Pitt’s Spend With Them and #buyfromthebush, which are raising awareness about small businesses affected by the fires and directing hundreds of thousands of Aussies to their websites and shops.
View this post on Instagram
You guys are INCREDIBLE!! Here are some of the packages @spaces2538 have ready to ship out – all thanks to your support. Vic and Gabs told us that many of these orders were placed by people overseas – people willing to pay extra freight charges just to support a local business here on the South Coast. Incredible ❤️❤️❤️
South Australian vineyard Vinteloper burned down late last year as bushfires swept across the state. But, after a difficult Christmas, customers have flocked to the business, buying its wine in an effort to ensure the business can stay on its feet.
The Spend With Them campaign featured the company as part of its ongoing efforts.
“We’ve been blown away by your support from near and far. Whether you’re asking your local wine shop for Adelaide Hills wines, seeking them out on wine lists, visiting @lotonehundred to buy direct, pestering your friends to order online, or just raising a quiet glass in our name – or any others affected in these godawful fires – thankyou,” the business said in a recent Instagram post.
View this post on Instagram
Update: This is my big brother David. He has not smiled in many many days because his vineyard at @vinteloper burned down and it has been a shitty fucking Christmas I’ll tell ya. Sure I’m hugging him but we both stink like smoke and our backs hurt and we are tired. When I got to Adelaide, he was a shell of a man. And I said TELL ME HOW TO HELP YOU and he threw his hands up and said I DON’T KNOW. He’s a smart guy but has anyone written a guide on what to do when your vineyard totally burns down? No. They bloody haven’t. So we had no idea. Enter, you. When I asked you guys to buy his wine the other day I didn’t know if it would even make a difference. Then his phone started pinging with orders. And he looked at me and said in wonder “I….I think all your people are buying wine” and he peeled himself off the floor, and with every ping I watched him come back to life. Later that night he said Monz I love you. And he’s never said that. Not on my wedding day. Never. I think what he meant was, I love that you would do this for me. So I forced him in front of this hedge for a photo. I said Dave, I’m sick of seeing burned down things, please let’s find a lush green hedge for a quick selfie so I can THANK the shit out of everyone who bought wine. Which in hindsight is perhaps insensitive? y/n All of you took a chance on a small business and said “let me help!” and you did good and I am feeling very #grateful and so is he. There’s a long road ahead for him. But every single bottle has made the hugest difference to him, his family, his business and to our family too. Thankyou I love you. And what I mean is, I love that you would do this for my brother. ❤️
ANZ: Economic effects to be felt nationwide
The immediate affect of the fires on Australia’s economy is likely to drive a slide in GDP for the December and March quarters, but likely not beyond 0.1-0.2%, ANZ Bank economists estimated in a note circulated Wednesday.
While government and community support for affected areas and local economies is expected to drive economic benefits through the second half of the year, GDP measures don’t capture property loss, meaning the figures under report the full extent of the economic effects.
The ANZ economists estimate domestic tourism, which accounts for about $0.75 of every dollar spent on tourism in Australia, will be most heavily affected by the fires. They expect a significant drop in domestic travel, something small businesses in regional communities rely on at this time of the year.
The economists noted the risk to international travel will increase if the fires maintain their severity over an extended period heading into February.
“Domestic tourists can respond to disasters by simply staying home whereas international tourists are already here,” they said.
The effect on Australia’s already flailing retail sector is also likely to be pronounced, with the fashion and cafe, restaurant and takeaway food services categories singled out for growth downgrades.
However, retail sales are expected to rebound in the medium term, with analysis of previous disasters indicating a possible recovery as sentiment picks up in the months following the fires.
This story was updated at 2:45PM AEDT.