Shuttered shops and quiet streets; city centres, shopping districts and restaurants have come to a standstill as a result of the coronavirus. With travel restrictions, quarantine orders and social distancing measures in place, many local retail business owners face an uncertain future. But those who can adapt in the face of this uncertainty will give themselves the best possible chance to succeed.

We were only a few weeks into our newest Retail Innovation Program when COVID-19 struck Australia. The 12-week program, which we are currently running in partnership with the City of Sydney, is designed to help retail businesses innovate, grow and gain a competitive edge. But overnight, 20 businesses that had been gearing up for their next growth stage were suddenly in a fight to keep their businesses afloat. 

So what has it been like for local retail businesses? We spoke with the participants to learn more about how the program has helped them adapt in the face of crisis. 

But first, here is an overview of the current cohort: 

  • Afar: Curated gifting marketplace 
  • A.McDonald Shoemaker: Made-to-order and ready-to-wear footwear for men and woman
  • Arthur Ave: Stylish, vintage clothing for children 
  • Banksia Bakehouse: Bespoke, beautiful cakes and pastries
  • Barangaroo Orthopaedic and Sports Injury Clinic (BOSIC): Multi-disciplinary sports injury clinic specialising in physiotherapy, podiatry, orthopaedic and exercise physiology
  • Brooklyn Boy Bagels: Artisan producer of authentic New York bagels
  • Coterie by Milla: Curated team of ethical stylists offering blowouts, nails and makeup services on demand 
  • Fairina Cheng: Unconventional jewellery for rule-breakers and story makers
  • Flyover: Vegan Indian street food
  • Green Goods: Sustainable living made simple via a curated digital marketplace and credible storytelling
  • Knox Street Bar: Cocktail bar with live performance room and gallery
  • Love.Fish: High-quality Australian seafood in a casual, affordable setting
  • Nutie: Gluten-free and vegan bakery and cafe
  • Mae Thorani: Online marketplace for rare and unique plants
  • Shirt Bar: Coffee whiskey tailoring experience
  • Soul Dining: Contemporary Korean restaurant
  • Staves Brewery: An Independent champion brewery, taproom, beer garden and live entertainment space 
  • The Tea Centre: Premium loose leaf tea and accessories
  • Trolly’d: Aviation-themed mobile bar hire and events management 
  • Two Design Lovers: Online marketplace for new and second-hand designer furniture and homewares 

A Foundation for Adaptation

The Retail Innovation Program centres around the Business Model Blueprint (BMB), Investible’s  ideation and management framework that outlines twenty key elements that go into developing a sustainable business model. 

Each week, participants focus on a different component of the BMB and for many, it’s the first time they’ve had a clear process to evaluate their business model and validate their assumptions quickly – a necessity in a time of crisis. 

“The content and structure of the program is forcing us to work step-by-step through the elements of a business plan. This has been a really valuable exercise. I had lots of ideas that were floating around but now I can pin them down and hone them into shape,” said Deb Achhorner of Two Design Lovers. 

Illa Kim who runs SOUL Dining, a modern Korean eatery says the BMB helped her pivot to a new takeaway model under a sub-brand Bowl by Soul.

“With what we learned from the program, we could react fast in face of the coronavirus crisis and come up with a new concept. We could validate our ideas and decisions faster within the framework of the program and get valuable feedback from peers and from the Investible team,” said Kim. 

Others say the program helped them recognise that most problems have more than one workable solution.

“I sometimes tend to bury my head in the sand and make it work if it is the hardest way of doing things. The group has shown me so many ways in which to respond in a situation such as COVID-19. If one fails, there are a myriad of ideas to try next,” said Lisa Day of Mae Thorani.

Embracing Change 

Even in the best of times, today’s business owners must do it all. From mastering digital marketing, e-commerce, multi-channel experiences, to understanding financials and supply chain logistics, the Retail Innovation Program is designed to give retailers the confidence they need to make decisions in a changing world. 

“It has focussed my attention on how businesses won’t be the same after COVID-19 and how this pause in trading is an opportunity to make radical changes to my business,” said Bjorn Godwin, owner of Knox St Bar. 

“The focus on tech solutions and information has been invaluable for me. I am so grateful that my eyes have been opened to so many improvements I can make,” said Lisa Day of Mae Thorani Plants.

Many participants cited digital marketing as a key area for growth, with some already implementing what they’ve learned.

I’ve already made some notable changes to my SEO, and have lots of other initiatives I want to make with video content and advertising, blog posts, Google Adwords and more,” said Michael Shafran of Brooklyn Boy Bagels. 

“The program has improved my understanding of digital tools. We have also had the ability to evaluate the marketing we have done to date and prioritise what is working and what’s not,” Emilia Harrison of Two Design Lovers.

The Value of Community in Crisis 

People around the world now better understand the need for connection and community, especially when times are tough or when physical communication is limited. In just a few weeks, participants in the Retail Innovation Program have built a strong community, providing each with a trusted network of support when they need it most. 

“As a small business owner, it can often be quite lonely as not many family and friends really understand the ins and outs into running a business. The network has been invaluable, especially with the wide array of businesses in the program. There’s so much to learn from one another,” said Sam Davison of Barangaroo Orthopaedic & Sports Injury Clinic.  

The program came at a time when some of us faced the biggest challenge of our entire business journey so far. Seeing each other find an opportunity, leverage it and adapt our businesses has been inspirational. I couldn’t imagine facing these challenges alone,” she added.

It’s difficult to imagine a more supportive experience for a small business operator, whether fledgling or many years in,” said Lisa Green of Green Goods.  

“It feels like we are in expert hands and that the support network extends far beyond the cohort.”

With community comes collaboration. Participants also say being able to share critical information on grants and government support, deals from partners and contacts and opportunities has helped them respond more quickly and inspired them to think creatively.  

“There’s been so much sharing among the Retail Innovation members, I’ve been able to find out about new government initiatives quickly (and call my accountant less), get great tips on how to manage my online store, look into new markets and source packaging supplies,” added Shafran.

“Seeing the business owners in the group innovate and transform their businesses to create beautiful new products and offerings so quickly has been incredibly inspirational,” said Fairina Cheng, of Fairina Cheng Jewellery. 

So what’s next for these retailers? We’ll be sharing more on how these businesses have pivoted, refocused and prepped for what’s head. 

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