Western NSW business: Federal election, drought and online are having an impact

There have been a lot of challenges for our region's businesses thanks to the drought and two elections this year, so we spoke to business owners and representatives about how consumers, retailers and the government could work together to strengthen regional NSW.

WHILE consumers and businesses may not be able to make it rain, there are some things they can consider doing which could increase resilience and strengthen country communities contending with drought.

As Western NSW endures one of the most severe droughts on record, many retail businesses in country towns and cities are struggling to keep their heads above water.

Unsurprisingly, a recent NSW Business Chamber business conditions survey revealed the Far West and Orana regions had some of the worst conditions in the state.

"Results were woeful, with more than half of the businesses surveyed reporting deteriorating conditions, falling revenues and profits," Western NSW Business Chamber regional manager Vicki Seccombe said.

"In the Central West, it wasn't much better, with around 45 per cent of businesses reporting worsening conditions and falling profits."

Retail is being disrupted right across the world.

Western NSW Business Chamber regional manager Vicki Seccombe

Ms Seccombe said while most businesses are struggling, the level of difficulty each one is in varies across the region.

"Our smaller communities, who are solely reliant on agriculture, are the hardest hit and towns like Bathurst, Orange and Dubbo are slightly less impacted due to their larger and more diverse industry sectors.

"If things don't improve soon, then there is a real risk that we'll start to see jobs lost and a big drop-off in the availability of certain goods and services around the region.

"The worst case scenario is that families are forced to leave their homes and towns in search of work elsewhere. That clearly has a devastating impact on a community."

Everyone living in regional communities needs to take an active role in supporting a vibrant local retail sector, Ms Seccombe suggested.

"We need to support our local businesses or they will close and we will no longer have access to those products or services and jobs will be lost," she said.

PROMINENT ADVOCATE: Western NSW Business Chamber regional manager Vicki Seccombe represents many businesses across the Bathurst, Orange and Dubbo regions. Photo: BELINDA SOOLE

PROMINENT ADVOCATE: Western NSW Business Chamber regional manager Vicki Seccombe represents many businesses across the Bathurst, Orange and Dubbo regions. Photo: BELINDA SOOLE

It is not only consumers who have a role to play in building the resilience of retail outlets to withstand harsh domestic and international economic challenges.

Businesses could also consider innovating and changing the ways they do things to better align with consumer expectations.

"Retail is being disrupted right across the world," Ms Seccombe advised.

Online shopping is here to stay and we will continue to see changes around this sector. As business owners, we need to keep working on a blended approach to retail - regional bricks and mortar retailers should have an online presence.

Western NSW Business Chamber regional manager Vicki Seccombe

"Online shopping is here to stay and we will continue to see changes around this sector. As business owners, we need to keep working on a blended approach to retail - regional bricks and mortar retailers should have an online presence.

"We need to make it easy for locals to buy local."An online presence shows what products are on offer and gives people an opportunity to shop online locally, Ms Seccombe said.

"Products can be sent to customers or picked up in store, and research shows customers tend to buy more when they come into a physical store to pick up goods ordered online."

Ms Seccombe said smaller retail outlets in Dubbo, Bathurst and Orange are already reaping the rewards of investing in the establishment of online shopfronts.

"Online is providing business owners with an opportunity to grow their businesses and employ more locals," she said.

"Businesses like Ruby Maine in Dubbo, Bobbies in Orange or Incy Interiors in Bathurst all have strong online offerings.

"While growing numbers of consumers prefer to shop through their phone, tablet or desktop device; shopping in person at a physical retail may actually be more beneficial to consumers.

"Consumers should not assume that products will always be more expensive locally or you can't shop online from local shops - because that's just not right," Ms Seccombe said.

"So before you shop online or assume that the product or service is not available, give our local businesses the opportunity to assist," she advised.

Federal election outcome to help retailers

MIRACULOUS MORRISON: Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking on election night after pulling off a surprise victory. Photo: DOMINIC LORRIMER

MIRACULOUS MORRISON: Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking on election night after pulling off a surprise victory. Photo: DOMINIC LORRIMER

AUSTRALIA'S decision to re-elect the federal government will help give struggling businesses in the western region more confidence to invest in their communities and plan for the future, the NSW Business Chamber says.

"Business needs certainty and particularly in NSW where we have had two elections in the space of two months," Ms Seccombe said.

"There is no doubt that important business decisions like expansion, taking on additional staff or bringing on extra product lines have been held off until these election results were known.

"The return of the coalition government will be well received by the business community and they will now move forward with investing in their business capabilities, without the added concerns about issues such as workplace relations."

In the workplace relations policy space, the Labor opposition was promising to boost the wages of low paid workers who had their penalty rates cut by the Fair Work Commission, but the Morrison government is vowing not to go against the commission's recommendation and give poorly paid workers more help.

Instead it will lower the corporate tax rate paid by small and medium sized businesses, from 27.5 per cent to 25 per cent by the middle of 2022.

The NSW Government is committed to working with our farmers and our regional communities

John Barilaro

The government is also increasing the small business discount for unincorporated small businesses and expanding the instant asset write-off from $25,000 to $30,000 for small and medium businesses.

Energy prices will also fall by up to 15 per cent by July 31 for small businesses, the government is promising.

A new energy efficient communities program will also be rolled out, offering grants of up to $25,000 to eligible businesses so they can save energy and reduce their power bills.

BACKING BUSINESSES: NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro during a visit to Bathurst last year. Photo: CHRIS SEABROOK

BACKING BUSINESSES: NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro during a visit to Bathurst last year. Photo: CHRIS SEABROOK

Closer to home, John Barilaro, deputy premier in the recently re-elected NSW government, feels his team understands "the effects of this drought are hitting communities and businesses across the state very hard".

"The NSW Government is committed to working with our farmers and our regional communities," he says.

"We will continue to deliver the right support and assistance measures to help them manage the impacts of the current drought, recover quickly from it when conditions improve and to prepare for future dry spells."

Dubbo perspective: The Gift Closet

UNPREDICTABLE: Proprietor of The Gift Closet in Dubbo, Kristen Smith, reports of unpredictable patronage as the drought bites. Photo: BELINDA SOOLE

UNPREDICTABLE: Proprietor of The Gift Closet in Dubbo, Kristen Smith, reports of unpredictable patronage as the drought bites. Photo: BELINDA SOOLE

Customers of The Gift Closet at the northern end of Dubbo's main street enjoy its beautiful wares and aroma.

But their visits to 41 Macquarie Street are becoming unpredictable as a devastating drought drags on.

Business owner and operator Kristen Smith understands she is in the same boat as many retailers in the city.

Conversations with more experienced shopkeepers confirm for her that the current drought is the worst in living memory.

I don't think things are going to change until the drought does break

Kristen Smith

Mrs Smith, who launched her business in September 2016, said people were keeping their hands out of their pockets in the Dubbo region.

"People are watching what they are spending," she said.

".. the drought is playing a major, major factor in sales."

Mrs Smith's response to the economic climate has been to reassess stock and expedite her plan to go online.

"You've just got to be really careful with your stock levels and be sensible what you use," she said.

"We're about to go online, probably in the next six weeks. I was always going to do it but this has pushed me."

Mrs Smith's business was the product of her shopping excursions as a child with her mother and grandmother.

"We used to walk into a shop the three us but but there was never anything," she said.

"We had to go to different shops for each age bracket.

"I wanted everyone to walk in here and feel it was a nice shop to visit for all generations."

The businesswoman said Dubbo had "so many fabulous shops and boutiques".

"We're the hub of the west and it's a shame that the retail industry is struggling at the moment," she said.

"It would be wonderful to see everyone doing better than they are."

Mrs Smith uses social media to check on the well-being of customers from the north-west of NSW who haven't stepped into her shop for a while.

She has adopted a "batten down the hatches and get through the tough times" approach to business in 2019.

"I don't think things are going to change until the drought does break," the businesswoman said.