Shopping centres shuttered
by STEPHANIE CARAGLANIS
21st September 2020
OUR ONCE bustling shopping centres now resemble museums to commercialism — shop shutters locked in place, and lights dimmed.
While we often focus on how local businesses are doing; the butchers, the milk bar, the IGA, how often do we extend that thought to the traders at Eastland, The Pines, or Doncaster Shopping Town.?
Stockland The Pines, a once bustling hub for your everyday shopping needs, is now filled with visions of shutters and muted light amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shopping has been hard the past few months, especially for those behind the counter, with many vendors having to constantly adapt to ever changing lockdown restrictions.
The combination of business restrictions and the public making shopping and lifestyle choices minimising their movement, the swathe of retail and hospitality businesses within The Pines have seen significant drop-offs in their customer numbers.
While some coffee shops and eateries within The Pines have opted to take up the takeaway only option — such as Indulgence Café and Chirpy Chix — and weather the pandemic, many, facing dwindling shopper numbers, have opted to close.
Indulgence Café has been a Pines favourite for the 15 years — with decadent cakes, coffees and a homey brunch menu, the café was often busy, as shoppers took time out during their shop.
Café’s Manager, Shantha, says it is important to continue trading during these tough times, to maintain a sense of normality.
“We want to look after the regulars and keep the community spirit around,” she said.
Shantha says the encouragement to keep going is reflected through their regular customers.
“Our regulars supported us so much,” she said.
While the new culture of take away and delivery has provided a buoyancy aid for many hospitality businesses, charcoal chicken shop, Chirpy Chix’s owner Madrit told WD Bulletin that the dine-in experience is a big part of cuisine culture for many businesses, and these businesses are beginning to feel the impact of reduced foot traffic.
“Weekdays are quiet, not like they used to be,” he said.
Recently, the Victorian Government announced the $3 billion business support package which Premier Daniel Andrews described as the “biggest package of business support” the state has ever obtained.
Over $1.1B in cash grants will be allocated to small and medium-sized businesses, those vendors most affected by tough lockdown restrictions.
As Melburnians patiently wait for metropolitan restrictions to be relaxed, the Victorian Government will invest $44 million to aid businesses in easing and adapting toward our new COVID Normal.
But Madrit says, for businesses like his who are reliant on the dine-in experience, this support is not enough.
With plummeting sales, loss of customers and staff concerned about catching Coronavirus, the emotional and financial losses are not offset by government payments.
The prolonged restrictions are also beginning to impact the day-to-day legal matters, like rent.
Negotiations with landlords can be stressful at the best of times, let alone during a global health crisis.
Madrit says small businesses are having to quickly learn and adjust to negotiating with landlords, often without help, making these conversations difficult to navigate.
Some, like Madrit, have resorted to employing a middleman to help with lease negotiations and he says this has eased some of the burden of having to deal with this crisis, and the mechanics of running a business.
However, there is a glimmer of hope, Madrit says small and medium businesses are “fighting every day”.
“Stress is there, anxiety is there — but we have to be positive about it.”
As active cases fall and regional Victoria beginning to open up, there is hope that a café culture will return soon, albeit through a COVID Normal filter.
WD Bulletin also spoke with The Pines Centre Management but they did not wish to comment.
However, when these restrictions took hold in late July, The Pines put out a statement on their website expressing their support for struggling businesses.
“The health, safety and wellbeing of our customers, retailers, team members and the wider community is our highest priority so we are taking extra precautions to ensure our centres are clean, hygienic and minimise large scale interactions.
“We know this is a unique and changing situation, but we’re all in it together.
“We’re proud to be part of a community that can support each other.”
Lease help for retailers
On Friday, September 18, the Victorian Government announced changes in the Retail Leases Act 2003.
The changes focus on making it easier for small business owners to get their security deposits back more promptly, in addition to making leases and legal obligations easier to understand.
- Key edits to the act include:
- Landlords informing tenants of rent increases prior to lease extensions.
- An additional seven days to consider terms and conditions proposed in a lease.
- A maximum of 30 days for the return of a security deposit.
The Government is also extending further support to affected parties through the Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme as well as the Commercial Landlord Hardship Fund.
The Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme, introduced on March 29, 2020, provides rent reductions for small-to-medium sized businesses who’s income has been directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It also puts a freeze on evictions for rent non-payment for those businesses with an annual turnover of under $50M, that have also experienced a minimum 30 per cent reduction in turnover due to COVID-19.
The Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme offers grants of up to $3,000 per tenancy to eligible landlords experiencing financial hardship due to rent reductions.
Additionally, the Government is offering free mediation through the Victorian Small Business Commission, whereby mediators are appointed to help resolve any persisting disputes between renters and landlords — creating an accessible service for businesses who do not have the means to outsource.
Minister for Small Businesses, Jaala Pulford said the scheme was about accessibility and a better understanding of retail leases.
“This is about giving business owners a fair go in tough times and providing certainty for all parties.”
The announcement will be good news for struggling commercial renters and will hopefully alleviate some of the stresses small businesses face when it comes to tenancy, especially when the state is a long way from business as usual.