The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

All for Christmas for business

Peter Agius Wednesday, 11 November 2020, 07:06 Last update: about 3 months ago

Jason Micallef launched the jolly Christmas season, but the Health Minister knew nothing about it. This is typical of the ‘balance’ between health and the economy that is now the hallmark of Prime Minister Abela’s management, leaving the Covid-19 casualties behind.

At this stage, I would not be surprised if Julia Farrugia Portelli announces a kissing under the mistletoe event in Republic Street.

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All in the name of business balance sheets of course. Yes, that is indeed a noble motive. But so noble was the motive of attracting thousands of party goers without proper virus protocol in July. We all know the outcome of that for business. By now, you would have thought that government learnt that business prosperity in the pandemic requires more that quick fixes putting in peril all our health.

While Paris, London and Brussels cancel Christmas festivities to ensure people celebrate the holy season at home, our own Jason Micallef tries his own counter-grinch and launches the Valletta Christmas. Is the government oblivious to the fact that our ITU is full to the brim with Covid-19 patients? That our health frontliners are reaching breaking point to keep up with the 100 plus cases of virus detected every single day?

The Christmas period is without doubt a life saver for businesses, especially the smaller retail businesses for whom the end of the year always determines the difference between breakeven or loss and a healthy profit. This year, it is even more so, with the Chamber of SMEs regularly reporting our businesses to be on the brink of bankruptcy.

But does inviting a pandemic fest in the streets of Valletta solve the problem? Or should we instead address the issue in a more comprehensive (and responsible) manner? What about using the pandemic as an opportunity to speed up initiatives that are long in the making, tackling the fact that the Maltese retail market is gradually being eaten out by online shopping to foreign websites like Amazon?

Retail figures in Malta were falling already last year, before any pandemic, while internet shopping is on the rise year on year. How are we tackling this as a nation? While most of us would be happy just to find anything they want online, with little care as to its origin, for our business community it is imperative for the local offer to compete with the foreign one. Is it competing enough? Absolutely not.

While a good number of businesses have tried different ways to reach consumers online, success has been limited due to the lack of any coordinated efforts in training our businesses to rise to the challenge. For while all of our business owners and their sales persons would be able to sell ice in the north pole when in front of the customer, the virtual setting of the internet presents different challenges which require experience, adaptation and training.

Have you seen any training offers for online marketing sponsored or encouraged by our public authorities? I have not. The existing schemes of website development are very good and have helped Maltese businesses be present online, but there is a long way to go from being present to securing sales online. That is the gap that we need to fill, especially during this pandemic period.

Meanwhile, the stories from our business community speak about a whole range of experiences in tapping into the power of the internet with variable success. One shop owner I spoke to in Zebbuġ set up a facebook page to post photos of her dresses. Facebook helped bring in more customers to the shop, but handling direct sales online required too much work for her to keep up with the physical shop too. She decided internet sales are not for her.

Another shop owner selling stationary in Mosta told me about his efforts to offer products online. He spent thousands to set up a good website, but then he stumbled upon the challenge of synchronising his online shop stock with the stock in the shop itself. He paid for private expertise and is confident he will sort it out.

Yet another business owner is producing artefacts at home and managed to place them on a Maltese online platform, handling his sales for a minimal fee. This local platform uses all other existing platforms, including Amazon and Facebook, to place their clients’ offers all around the virtual marketplace. Now he is managing a decent regular income and planning to increase his output by recruiting additional help.

The experiences above are just a small sample of the range of challenges and opportunities faced by our businesses. We must use this pandemic to strengthen local businesses and help them to compete online. This is the real battleground. A look at our restaurant scene is telling enough. While a lot of restaurants are suffering the brunt of the pandemic due to the lack of tourist traffic and local consumption, a few have actually managed to keep the same business figures or increased them on the pre-pandemic sales. Those were the ones that read the signs of the times and invested in online take-away or delivery services, either their own or through common platforms.

Certainly, a pizzeria in Sliema is largely protected from competition with pizzerias in Rome for local delivery. The same cannot be said for non-perishable items. However, the resilience and commitment to adapt behind both is the one and the same key for businesses to survive the pandemic and to prosper on that platform thereafter. Public authorities should be there to bolster this process, to encourage through its presence and its initiatives rather than promising the pie in the sky that will not pay the bills.

Peter Agius, MEP candidate and EU expert 

[email protected]

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