When businesses open, the last thing they spend money on is new signage, he says. He’s struggling on, but has painted just three signs for new businesses since the pandemic struck. Instead he’s taken to painting messages of frustration on his own front window: a long-nosed Pinocchio caricature of Daniel Andrews saying “I’m a real poli” along with “Let us Lift!”; “Let us play!”; “Let us swim” #mentalhealth. JobKeeper is the only thing keeping Mr Gardner afloat, and he dreads the time when it’s removed.
Up and down this strip, shop owners have abandoned their premises. It’s hard to trace the people behind these empty and graffitied windows to work out just what combination of COVID or other misfortune has made them quit. But the shopfronts they leave behind stick out like broken teeth.
The story is replicated across the state. Retail job losses have already far eclipsed the height of the 1990s recession and are projected to hit almost 400,000 annually over the next five years, according to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study in August.
Australian Retailers Association chief executive Paul Zahra says that after being shut down for more than 70 days, up to half the small and medium retail businesses in Melbourne may not survive.
“The retail industry has its fate in the hands of a state government that seems to be focused on beating this virus at all costs,” he says.
From the city to Chapel Street in the south, and Sydney Road in the north, vacancies are up. Seventeen shops are vacant on Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 16 in Acland Street Village, and 27 in Bay Street, Port Melbourne. There is little hard data yet about how many businesses have shut for good.
From his office 500 metres down the road from Attic Signs, Walshe and Whitelock real estate director David Sowersby has watched the comings and goings of this retail strip for more than 45 years. He can remember it being this bad only once before. “Maybe in the late 80s and early 90s when that recession hit there might have been about as many vacant then.”
He looks to the end of JobKeeper in March.
“The problem we’ve got is no one really knows, after the JobKeeper type things, when that dries up, how many people are going to throw in the keys then?”
He estimates 10 per cent of businesses along Sydney Road are now vacant but, with so much uncertainty about the path to reopening, no one can say how many others will never return.
Jessica Tolsma’s bakery Jessicakes is one of the dozens of businesses that make up Sydney Road’s famed bridal precinct. Her industry was essentially shut down more than seven months ago when national cabinet announced radical restrictions on the number of people who could attend weddings, and people cancelled in droves.
Ms Tolsma’s three-person operation has survived on a combination of JobKeeper, a grant from the Victorian government and a deal struck with her landlord to partly waive and partly defer rent.
“We’re lucky to run a business in a country where the government is at least trying to help,” she said. But the longer the lockdown keeps retail and hospitality in a deep freeze, the “less the math works”.
JobKeeper payments have already been slashed by half and are due to end in March, rent and bills are accruing and it’s not clear when or which parts of the retail and hospitality sector will be allowed to return to some kind of normal trading.
“It’s not looking good at all, short term or long term. It’s not going to go back to normal. It’s going to be this new ‘COVID normal’ and who knows what that’s going to look like.”
“Even if you’ve got deferred rent, it’s just backing up behind you. How well will your business have to do to get on top of it after all this time?”
The wedding industry has been simultaneously smashed by restrictions against in-store retailing and the likelihood of ongoing restrictions against indoor gatherings.
Right now Victorian weddings can only have 10 participants, including the couple. That will increase to 50 in the “last step” of the state’s coronavirus recovery road map, on a date yet to be fixed.
“Lots of my brides won’t reschedule their weddings until they are allowed 100 people,” Ms Tolsma said.”Some … have already had to postpone twice and they’re not going to replan until this stuff has stopped happening. And who knows when that’s going to be?”
She had limited optimism about the federal budget measures that encourage hiring and tax write-offs on capital expenditure.
“Who has the money for that? Who has the business to hire more staff,” Ms Tolsma said. “I don’t need more staff, I need more customers.”
Jeweller Ellinor Mazza says her decision a few years ago to push into online retailing, rather than just rely on her Sydney Road street frontage, has been keeping her afloat, just.
“My business went down 40 to 50 per cent. The custom work and the repairs we just can’t do right now, but our online sales have gone up,” she said. “It’s never going to be as much as you need but it’s helped balance it out. I know other businesses that closed on the same day as us (in August) and they haven’t been able to trade at all.”
But even with the online sales, JobKeeper and other government assistance is what has kept Arbor’s four employees and its owner on the books.
“More and more damage is being done the longer this drags on. You get the feeling that sometime next year the bottom is going to fall out. That maybe things won’t bounce back. And then it’s like, where do I go from here?”
And the federal budget measures? “It’s great if you’re operating and actually have some certainty. But being Victorian, I can’t even plan for the next week let alone for the next 12 months.”
Bianca Hall is City Editor for The Age. She has previously worked as a senior reporter, and in the Canberra federal politics bureau.
Chris Vedelago is an investigations reporter for The Age with a special interest in crime and justice.
Royce Millar is an investigative journalist at The Age with a special interest in public policy and government decision-making.