Despite the uplift within many parts of retail in recent months, our recovery remains uneven, with thousands of retail jobs under immediate threat as the JobKeeper scheme winds up.
Many businesses that will shed those jobs are currently invisible, located in now-deserted visitor zones within airports and CBD tourist shopping strips, out of sight and mind. But those who staff them are better known — we all know an aunt, cousin, nephew or neighbour who works in a travel agency, manages an airport bookstore, or is part of the supply chain for duty free goods and services.
Travel retail businesses are often quite specialist in their offerings, attracting qualified staff who have built a career around their expertise.
Many stay with a business for years, even decades. Through no fault of their own, their careers will come to an untimely end if the government doesn’t step in and provide ongoing support. For the business owners and managers who run them, the looming March deadline is a grief-stricken exercise — letting go of these teams is like letting go of family.
International borders have remained closed to visitors far longer than envisaged at the start of the pandemic. There were just 7570 visitor arrivals during November according to Tourism Australia, a drop of 99 per cent compared to the same time the previous year.
Some businesses, such as duty free shops, have lost 90 per cent of their revenue since the pandemic started. Many cannot afford to hang on any longer and are in the process of shedding thousands of jobs in anticipation of the March end date for JobKeeper.
The impact of these losses can be felt on a social as well as an economic level. We cannot underestimate the mental health challenges that flow on from losing a job and what that can mean for families and relationships. It means more people on welfare and more people at breaking point.
Targeted support needs to remain in place. The government has been quick to celebrate Australia’s bounce back from the economic crisis and are refusing to budge on the JobKeeper end date.
We know that schemes like this can’t last forever, but with pockets of retail like travel still struggling, more needs to be done for this deeply affected sector.
Experts believe global travel patterns won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. And even when the vaccines are properly rolled out and border restrictions are relaxed, not everyone will be gung-ho about jumping on a plane overseas given the health and safety issues in the back of their minds.
Unlike other sectors that benefit from the upswing in domestic tourism, without targeted support beyond JobKeeper, travel retailers face a complete decimation.
The retail industry is appreciative of the JobSeeker scheme and everything it’s done to support businesses through the worst of the pandemic. But we can’t celebrate a job well done just yet. Travel retailers face a long, difficult road back and there needs to be ongoing targeted support to help them through the crisis.
Paul Zahra is the CEO of the Australian Retailers Association.