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Online or perish: Canberra businesses pivot around COVID-19

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As the shockwaves from Australia’s response to COVID-19 continue to reverberate around the ACT, local businesses are discovering the need to pivot or perish.

A week ago, Handmade Market’s Managing Director Julie Nicholls was dealing with the biggest business decision she had ever had to make in 12 years of running Handmade. Close the market which was expected to bring 30,000 people into close proximity at EPIC, or try and move it online to salvage what they could in response to COVID19.

She chose the latter, and between Monday and Saturday, she and her tiny team went full pelt to create a new website and bring 273 stallholders into the virtual realm.

Well, the good news is—it worked.

Handmade Market faced the challenge of moving their event online, in a matter of days.


After working 20-hour days wrangling the new website and ensuring the stallholders were ready for the leap, Julie is proud to report that the Handmade Virtual Market drew almost as many online customers as she was expecting through the physical gates.

“We had 28,490 unique visits to the site, and 133,074 page views. It was just extraordinary. Honestly, we are all still in shock at what a success it was.”

While Julie is aware not all stallholders had a good market in terms of sale, for some, the move to online brought them new levels of success and customer contact.

“One woman contacted me to say that she had had 99 sales and it was better than the year before when she was physically standing in her stall at EPIC.”

Julie says that for business owners out there—particularly small retailers—there is hope to salvage a business through the move to online even if its physical doors have to close for the time being.

“For us, it was a question of just giving up and cancelling or trying to keep it together for the short-term so we could sustain the business long-term. It will be the same for so many businesses over the next few weeks and months”.

Julie said the two days were a phenomenal success which points to goodwill and support coming from loyal customers.

“I would suggest for any businesses out there now considering their future, they don’t need to be scared of going online. Spend a little bit of time looking at what is out there to see what is going to fit.”

She also stressed the ease and convenience of Instagram as a marketing tool—at a time when people are clearly glued to their phones.

“Get a good photo and a good description and treat your followers as you would your actual customers. Talk to them, answer their questions, be responsive.”

As Nature Intended is offering Facetime shopping for customers in response to people avoiding going out.

Over at As Nature Intended at Dairy Road in Fyshwick, owner Beata Wilder has been offering Facetime shopping for customers in response to people avoiding going out. The wholefood market stocks fresh organic fruit and veggies as well as staples such as flour, sugar, and rice.

“Some of these things you can’t get in the supermarket, but we have it all in abundance.”

She said people could talk through nutrition advice and just share their feelings about being in isolation with her or her assistant Sharon. “It is a nice way to provide people with that personal touch and to be able to discuss our products so you can see a smiling face and hear a voice.”

“I think a lot of people are wanting to make sure that they look after their nutritional needs and boost their immunity as much as possible at the moment so if they don’t want to come into the shop, we are doing our best to provide that face-to-face contact and advice.”

Order can be placed over the facetime chat and delivered within the day for a $5 fee within a 10km radius.

“Even if you are craving a fresh juice, we can make it here and deliver you half a litre.”

Brodburger is just one of the Canberra businesses embracing online ordering and home delivery.

Similarly, the last week in Canberra has seen a host of restaurants organise home delivery service as their doors close to the public—a decision made by the Federal Government over the weekend.

Hospitality recruitment veteran Chris Hansen is also moving quickly to set up a new online ordering hub for some of Canberra’s most notable restaurants—a move aimed not only at providing some of the city’s top chefs with a living wage but from stopping them leaving the industry altogether.

Canberra Eats will be targeting the middle to higher-end restaurant food delivery market and is launching in the inner north and inner south with between 15-20 venues on board.

Chris expects to sign off on the venture in the next few days.

“We know that hospitality casuals and most of the full-time staff have lost their jobs, but this is a way to keep the chefs at least in the kitchen. When the city finally bounces back from this, it would be a tragedy for us to have lost some of our top talent.”

Canberra Eats will charge a minimum order of $55, with a $10 delivery fee with a radius of around 15-20km per venue. The orders must be in by 5 pm and then allocated a preferred delivery slot (with a half-hour window) between 6-9 pm. The customer will receive a text when the order is dropped on their doorstep so there is no personal contact.

“’Locals supporting their locals’ is our tagline. We want people to consider the businesses in their suburb, the places they normally enjoy and to give them a lifeline.”

Part of the business model is to use drivers who would normally be front of house but have lost their jobs.

“We are recruiting from within the industry.”

“Think of it as a way to bring your favourite chef into your house, where you can order your favourite dish and know that you are playing a small role in keeping that restaurant open for the long-term.”

Even the tiny family-run restaurants like Dickson’s popular Pho Phu Quoc are adapting quickly.

Even the tiny family-run restaurants are adapting quickly. Dickson’s popular Pho Phu Quoc is joining Menulog from Friday and is using staff to ferry orders out to all inner north suburbs (and a few Belconnen suburbs) for free between 5-9 pm. The minimum spend is just $40 and given a bowl of the restaurant’s famed rare beef pho is only $13.90, it shows how fine the margins are for owner Sue Le who says she is “basically working for free to stay open so we can have a restaurant to come back to.”

Having spent 32 years in the industry, Sue said her family was just hanging on to the business and she cried over the phone as she describes having to let her staff go.

“I am so devastated and heartbroken to see what is happening around the world. It was so terrible to let our staff go. And I am scared. But I’m also grateful to all the loyal customers who are trying to support us by putting in home delivery orders during this time.”

The Doughnut Department is moving to online ordering and takeaway.

So many Canberrans are keen to do what they can for the industry. Over at the Doughnut Department in Civic, owner Andrea Hutchinson said she was reduced to tears this week when a regular customer came in for a coffee and insisted on paying $100.

“I told him I wouldn’t accept the money but he wouldn’t accept the change,” she said.

Doughnut Department was moving to an online delivery system as well as offering takeaway in the hope that during these bleak days, people would appreciate one of their handmade treats as a small reason for happiness.

“We will keep the business alive for as long as we can, for as long as we have orders,” she said.

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