With the economic effects of Covid-19 hitting small businesses hardest, shopping local has never been more important. Ben Fahy spoke to three businesses owners about surviving a pandemic.
Things change quickly in 2020. One minute New Zealanders are able to hug openly, order shared plates at restaurants and gather in large groups to watch sporting events, the next we’re retreating into our homes again. With Auckland back in alert level three and the rest of the country perched precariously in level two, small businesses are again on the front line of the fall out of the pandemic.
Over the last six months in response to Covid-19 New Zealanders have discovered the true power of where they spend their money. The drive to support local brands has revealed what an important role local businesses play in their communities and exposed a myriad of exciting, innovative and humble New Zealand businesses that found ways to survive and thrive.
The Spinoff talked to three local entrepreneurs – who make up half of the faces of Visa’s Where You Shop Matters campaign – about the evolution of their businesses, their response to the crisis and their place in the community.
Duncan’s Brewing Co.
‘People aren’t just buying a product. They’re buying things that say something about them and their values’
Small business owners are well-accustomed to multi-tasking and George Duncan, the co-founder of Duncan’s Brewing Co. on the Kāpiti Coast, is sipping on one of his frosty ales and beavering away in the brewery when we speak.
“It’s actually not that common for me to sit down and have a beer,” he laughs.
For Duncan, the seed of this current business was planted around ten years ago when he was studying sonic arts at Victoria University. Struggling through chemistry 101, a biochemist friend offered to give him a few lessons. He was a homebrewer so the chemistry lessons revolved around beer.
“That’s how I got into it,” says Duncan.
Not long after, he and his wife Wai Familton – who’s also his business partner – went on a 22,000km road trip around the US and got stuck into the craft beer scene.
“We were at Homer Brewing in Alaska and it came into our minds: should we start a brewery?”
After Duncan did some contract brewing to get a feel for the commercial side of things, he and his wife took the plunge and launched their own brewery about three years ago.
“The first 18 months to two years were really hard. We had some real mishaps. But it feels like you have to go through all that to get to something better. We learnt a lot of good lessons along the way.” He says the naivety was probably helpful because if they knew what they were getting into, they probably wouldn’t have got into it. And not really having a formula has allowed them to solve problems in creative ways.
Going into lockdown, he says they were “really freaking out”, but beer sales remained strong in supermarkets as many New Zealanders doubled down on our few remaining pleasures. They were also able to dial up their existing e-commerce offerings or, as he calls it, their “public service”.
“We were able to hit the ground running during lockdown, whereas some other breweries didn’t have a website and were scrambling to get one done,” he says.
“It was hard yakka. We’re a production brewery and we’re not really set up to dispatch individual orders. I remember on the first Monday saying ‘I don’t know how I can pack 50 orders on top of a normal day’s work, we’ve got to close the online store! It worked out fine though because when it comes down to it, people and businesses – and particularly small businesses – can adapt pretty quickly,” he says, adding that those Covid-19 related adaptations actually led to an increase in sales.
“Everyone was online during lockdown and we did a lot of social stuff so more people are familiar with our brand now and we got a lot of new customers. In fact, we’ve just had our best month ever, in the middle of winter. That’s not meant to happen.”
Having access to social media and e-commerce has allowed small businesses like Duncan’s to show customers what they stand for and get them buying.
“At the moment people are really aware of products, who makes them, where they’re made and what they represent. People aren’t just buying a product. They’re buying things that say something about them and their values,” he says.
“Our branding is pretty left-field and now we have a broad spectrum of people drinking our beer, and I think it’s quite obvious what the brand represents.”
“It sounds really lame, but a big part of [our brand] is having fun with everything we do. Don’t get all weird and conservative. Don’t try and make a product that you think everyone will like. You’ll never please everyone, so you’re almost better going the other way.”
And being bold, both with its branding and its beers, appears to be pleasing plenty.
“If you told me 12 months ago that I’d be making 4,000 litres of imperial ice cream sour to meet demand, I’d say you were crazy. That might not be much to the big guys, but that’s huge for us … It blows my mind.”
‘It’s all about identity and pride.’
Fashion designer Adrienne Whitewood vividly remembers the trips she used to take into Rotorua town with her family when she was young.
“It was such a treat. We’d get a bit of pocket money and we’d run around and look at all the shops. For us, shopping was such a special thing.”
After graduating from AUT with a degree in fashion design, she started selling her own designs in an artist’s collective in Rotorua. But, perhaps in part because of those family trips, she always dreamed of opening her own store. So at the age of 25, she decided to go it alone. She found a space, negotiated a good deal with the landlord and opened up Ahu boutique in 2013.
“It’s been the best journey of my life. I joke that it’s my first child. It’s been transforming for me. I’m not the most outgoing person, but having the store has allowed me to get into the community. You don’t realise how many people you can help out or that you’ll be an inspiration for other people to start a business.”
Profit can be a great lubricant for doing good and Whitewood says helping out in her community has become one of her passions. During lockdown, she heard about the likelihood of increased domestic violence against women and children, so she decided to support Waiariki Women’s Refuge by donating a share of all sales from one of her collections. She has also partnered with the School for Young Parents in Rotorua, offering young mums work experience when they’re ready, teaching them to screenprint, and collaborating with them on a collection and fashion show.
“We want to be role models in our town. That’s the beautiful thing about living in Rotorua. We take ownership. During this difficult time, it helps me sleep a bit better at night knowing that we’re doing what we can. It’s all about giving back … It’s a balancing act between culture, creation and community and we’re trying to connect the dots between all three.”
Whitewood’s vision is to “create an emotional connection to indigenous design” and she says the addition of traditional Māori patterns to her vintage creations has so far proven hugely popular.
“We couldn’t keep up with demand. It was crazy. That’s when I realised that people wanted Māori designs. It’s all about identity and pride.”
Whitewood adds there’s also plenty of commercial potential, with initiatives like the Kāhui Fashion Collective, a programme founded by designer Kiri Nathan and now embraced by NZTE which aims to harness that growing interest and help Māori fashion businesses grow.
For many businesses, the drop in international tourists has been devastating, but for Whitewood it’s been a blessing in disguise. She says the support her business has received has been amazing, from phone calls asking if they needed help to the funding they received to upgrade the website. A quote that’s always resonated with Whitewood is that “you either control the narrative, or you let it control you”, and she feels that’s particularly relevant now.
“I’ve always held onto that. If you push yourself and think creatively, you can get through anything. This is a terrible time, but there are opportunities and if we keep that doom and gloom mentality, then it will be doom and gloom.”
During lockdown, Whitewood saw an opportunity to ramp up production and moved her business back home. She even hired both her parents to help with the distribution of e-commerce orders.
“It was huge. I think we doubled the number of orders we would have normally done in a month. We pumped social media and kept the storytelling up.”
As the success of the New Zealand-Made Products Facebook Page (now renamed Chooice) showed, social media can provide some much-needed momentum to small businesses.
“It just takes one little thing and you can catapult. I don’t have a huge following, but I ‘ve grown my business organically over almost eight years. That’s the amazing thing about social media.”
She’s hoping some extra attention will help grow her business from small-to-medium and then medium-to-big. And to get there, she’s exploring the possibility of a distribution partner and moving to a larger store. But no matter how big she might get, she says she’ll always remain loyal to Rotorua.
“Don’t think you have to start your business in Auckland or Wellington. Sometimes it’s easier to start a business in a small local town. You can get stories in the local paper, there’s less competition, and you know everyone. You’ll be surprised at how many people want to help you. But it’s only when you put yourself out there you realise that,” she says.
“Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi. With your basket and my basket the people will thrive.”
Waiheke Dive & Snorkel
‘Covid made people recognise how important those local connections are.’
Like many who make the move to Waiheke Island for good, Adam Whatton and his partner Pip ended up living there after a day trip and a few too many wines.
The pair, who arrived in New Zealand from the UK around seven years ago and worked in the dive industry, had been sampling some of the fine local liquids and wondered why there wasn’t a dive shop on the island.
“We knew Kiwis loved diving, but we weren’t sure if we were missing something,” he says.
That question sent the couple on a journey that involved a year’s worth of research and analysis to see if a dive shop was viable. They felt it was and, once they secured finance, they opened Waiheke Dive & Snorkel in 2017. From the start, Whatton says their model was focused on community and conservation and jokes that they’re basically running the company as a front for their community work.
One of the biggest wins, he says, was delivering a heavily subsidised experiential education programme for all of the island’s schools allowing around 280 kids to experience their own coastline from a new perspective. Whatton recalls the story of one young student who was extremely nervous before going on a group snorkelling trip.
“But when he came back, he had the biggest beaming smile. There were a few teary eyes on the beach when we saw how happy he was.”
Also focused on protecting the ocean, the business runs regular clean-up dives around the island and instituted a 100% no-take policy on all dives. So now, when people come in to buy a paua knife or a catch bag, they’re not available in store. He says a number of people told him that this model wouldn’t work in New Zealand, but it’s something they believed in, and people have largely supported the policy. He says it allows them to start a conversation about the parlous state of our oceans, particularly the Hauraki Gulf.
Just like the oceans, the economy is an ecosystem. Whatton says the first two years of the business were incredibly hard with a snorkel hire operation they set up categorised as “an expensive flop”. However, he believes they were accepted by the local community when they proved they were there for all the right reasons. Originally, he thought international visitors would make up around 90% of the business, but it’s ended up being about half and half.
The border closure has certainly put pressure on the business, but Whatton says regular customers checked in during lockdown to see how they were getting on. He thinks some even made online purchases during alert level four “to help keep us going”.
“I think Covid made people recognise how important those local connections are. To walk into the butcher and have them know what you’re going to order, or to come to our dive shop and know that your tanks will be ready for Thursday. We’ve recognised the value of that.”
He says individuals and businesses have also recognised the value of digital tools to stay connected.
“We do bookings online, we use Facebook Messenger to talk to customers and we have a decent online store. You could say that Scuba technology hasn’t really changed in 80 years, but the way you run a business definitely has. A huge number of clients come through our social media channels and people shouldn’t be afraid of it. You’ve got to have fun with it and be yourself. You can see with the rise of TikTok that it’s often what people are looking for.”
After the restrictions from New Zealand’s first lockdown period ended, he says the company saw a bump in customers wanting to get back into the water and, in keeping with its community values, it’s also been running a “pay what you can” scheme for locals which has been very popular. It’s not the most profitable thing they’ve ever done, but for Whatton, value can’t always be measured with money.
“It’s been really lovely. It’s probably some of the most fun I’ve ever had in the water.”
The power of local
New Zealanders have been quick to embrace their local in response to the pandemic’s impact on the economy. A Visa survey in July found 97% of Kiwis were committed to shopping local and supporting small local businesses as they recover from Covid-19.
“Support from local communities is really critical as the country adapts once more to restrictions that will impact commerce and trading,” says Marty Kerr, Visa Country Manager for New Zealand and South Pacific. “So it’s amazing to see the majority of Kiwi consumers are willing to support in these uncertain times.”
And having an online offering is becoming essential, especially as we’ve seen how quickly physical stores can become off-limits as alert levels change. The survey showed 76% of shoppers thought retailers should have an online presence and 74% thought retailers should accept digital payments.
Visa’s Where You Shop Matters initiative aims to profile Kiwi small businesses such as Duncan’s Brewing Co., Adrienne Whitewood and Waiheke Dive & Snorkel, and remind New Zealanders about the positive impact their shopping can have on local communities.
As part of the initiative, Visa launched a Business Locator Tool to help New Zealanders find local businesses that are open and trading, as well as free e-commerce support for small businesses looking to move or grow their presence online. To find out more, click here.