One of the success stories of the level four lockdown, SOS Business has provided a channel for incapacitated communities to send support where it is needed most.
In the frenzied 48 hours before level four took effect, when packs of Cottonsoft were being ripped off supermarket shelves like the last lifejackets on a sinking ship, David Downs went online to buy a voucher from his local cafe.
A concerned resident of Devonport on Auckland’s North Shore, he knew how badly a month of no trading would cripple the small local cafes and restaurants, and that any extra cash would not only help them get through the month ahead, but also show that their customers were thinking of them. But when he realised that few of the businesses could sell online, he did something better. He created a website that would do the selling for them.
Six weeks later, SOS Business, the ecommerce platform that enables customers to buy vouchers from their favourite businesses, has seen $1.3m worth of sales and 2500 businesses register on the platform. In a stressful time, when physical avenues of kindness have been barred, it has become a symbol of impromptu innovation, providing a tool for New Zealanders to give small businesses a cash injection when it is needed most.
The enthusiastic reception of SOS Business revealed to Downs the true value people place on the small businesses in their communities.
“We’re really seeing incredible results,” he says. “We’re getting all sorts of cool stories coming through, people saying, ‘This is making a huge difference and we’re going to be able to pay our rent through the period that we’re shut.’”
“The cool thing is it’s their customers doing it. No one is forcing them to do this, it’s the loyal customers of these places… we’ve got coffee shop owners coming back and saying, ‘It’s so lovely that our customers love us and are thinking about us during these tough times.’”
In the two weeks after the platform launched, it expanded far beyond the Devonport businesses that inspired the concept, signing up not only cafes and restaurants but also massage therapists, hairdressers and tattoo parlours across the country. The name changed from SOS Cafe to SOS Business to reflect the diverse range of clients. And the team of volunteers running the website grew from three to 12.
However, as it grew so did the workload – and the costs. For Downs, who was managing the project alongside his regular job at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, the aim was to ensure that all the cash was passed on to businesses as quickly as possible.
“It’s a pure not for profit, but it was actually costing us a reasonable amount of money to run,” he says.
That’s when one of the SOS team had a chat with the Kiwibank team, who loved the idea and offered to help.
“So they signed up as a partner, paying some of the costs of the website so that we can continue giving all the money to the businesses. It really aligned with their values.”
Partnership meant the platform could continue to expand, and the resultant media attention connected more of those businesses forced to close under level four with those wanting to help. While the shift to level three has allowed many businesses to reopen in some capacity and customers to purchase directly through contactless orders, Downs says hundreds of vouchers are still being purchased daily, often as donations or gifts.
“We’ve seen $120,000 which is just pure donation from people who want to support without expecting anything in return. We’ve also had some large companies buy big orders from us to give to their staff as motivation gifts. One organisation bought 1,000 vouchers and gave them to their staff.”
The owner of Wellington pub Little Beer Quarter (LBQ), Maura Rigby, says people have been buying vouchers as donations to essential workers so they can enjoy a free drink once bars are allowed to open again.
“Customers are coming up with their own ideas about how to give back and help people.”
Rigby, who also owns the Beach Babylon Cafe in Oriental Bay, says that while the wage subsidy has kept her staff paid, the vouchers have helped cover other fixed costs over the past seven weeks.
“It’s just been great to have some turnover with a lot of our continued fixed costs going out, so we’ve been quite overwhelmed with the generosity of some people. We had one customer buy a $1,000 voucher for our cafe and we’ve had $600 from a business for our bar. At least $3,000 has come in total for each business.”
On-licence alcohol businesses like LBQ have faced a costly dilemma during alert level three, unable to physically host customers because of public health measures yet also restricted from selling takeaway alcohol. With on-licence businesses having up to 80% of their revenue unavailable, Rigby has been lobbying the Wellington City Council and central government for some sort of leniency. In the meantime her customers have been delaying redeeming their vouchers until the bar is back up and running.
“I think the vast majority bought them to support us and will hold off until we can get back onto our feet and they can come back into our premises.”
Along the Kāpiti Coast at Raumati Village, owner of Reddin’s bar and restaurant Barney Shiels-Reddin says vouchers are still being purchased but not many have been redeemed, a sign the community is continuing to rally around his business.
“Even our friends around the corner at Paraparaumu Pak’NSave called us up and wanted to buy some vouchers to give to their customers. Everyone’s getting behind everyone else and supporting local businesses.”
Like other employers enduring six weeks of severely limited trade, Shiels-Reddin was able to get the wage subsidy for his staff, while the SOS vouchers helped cover some costs and his bank was on hand to cushion the impact of the lockdown.
“The ingenuity of things like SOS just starting up from scratch have been really handy. We also had to have a number of calls with Kiwibank early in the piece, switching our merchant account which enables us to take Eftpos payments over the phone. They were absolutely brilliant and could not have done any more for us.”
Now open for contactless orders, Reddin’s has put public health measures in place and is offering free deliveries to the local community. They’ve even been hosting online quiz nights that can attract up to 100 participants.
“It was a learning curve – there were people that found a way to cheat – but it’s been fun and word has spread.”
For Shiels-Reddin, this type of community engagement made all the difference during the long spell the restaurant was closed to the public. It’s what David Downs set out to do when he created SOS – allowing people to connect and contribute virtually, even though they couldn’t physically.
“It’s not so much the money, although it always helps,” Shiels-Reddin says. “It’s the fact that people have taken the time. It gives us a nice feeling when we see people doing that for us.”
This content was created in paid partnership with Kiwibank. Learn more about our partnerships here.