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COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 (coronavirus) was first confirmed in Australia in late January 2020. Whilst at this time no one would fully comprehend how profoundly our lives would change throughout the year, the remote retail sector would band together strongly to ensure remote communities were well supported through the peak of a global pandemic.

The Outback Stores Executive Team was quick to act identifying the potential impact, establishing an internal working group to coordinate our response to the virus in early March.

The working group focused on three key areas:

  • Our customers - Keeping community stores open and ensuring food security
  • Our team - Keeping our team and communities safe, healthy and well informed
  • Our suppliers - Working with suppliers to ensure uninterrupted trade and ensure food security for remote communities

In early March Outback Stores suspended all travel for non-essential services into remote communities until further notice. All non-essential interstate travel for our support team was suspended. Our store managers made strong commitments to stay and support their communities and 95% of our Darwin and Alice Springs support offices transitioned to a work from home environment.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) characterised the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic thereafter on March 11th.

As remote communities were being designated as biosecurity zones in late March, Outback Stores was working proactively in the background on ensuring food security as part of a national taskforce under the leadership of Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians The Honourable Ken Wyatt AM.

In light of travel restrictions in and out of communities, the Australian Government increasing welfare payments, and mainstream retailers facing challenges in maintaining stock, collective action was required to ensure food supply to remote communities was prioritised at this uncertain time.

Consisting of key suppliers and manufacturers, fellow retailers; Woolworths, Coles, Arnhem Land Progress Association (ALPA), Community Enterprise Queensland (CEQ) along with State and Territory Governments, the taskforce collaborated daily to ensure that remote communities were well supported with food supply and pricing remained stable.

“During this time, we saw the taskforce step up and go the extra mile to ensure that remote stores were a priority, keeping food security strong. It was great to see groups from across the nation work together on a common cause and to collaborate rather than compete,” said Outback Stores CEO Michael Borg.

With good stock levels across most stores due to forward planning, an increase in deliveries to some stores and its purchase of two additional stock builds totalling $1.9 million. Outback Stores was well-prepared for the 75-100% increase in sales that stores experienced from late March to the start of June.

Whilst stores kept prices stable and food security strong, Store Managers on the ground were working overtime to ensure communities were well supported.

Ross McDermott manages the community store at Beswick with his wife Sandra. The couple have been working in remote communities with Outback Stores for over 10 years.

“Along with sales increasing we definitely noticed that buying patterns changed during the biosecurity period. People were spending more on buying healthy food like meat, eggs and fresh fruit and vegetables, which was really good,” said Ross.

The Beswick Store reported a 90% sales increase on the previous year from March to the end of June. Along with providing food security for its own community, the store also had to support residents from neighbouring Barunga and Manyallaluk who travelled to Beswick to complete their shopping.

“I have not seen sustained trade before like we did over this time. We had to work long hours and seven days just to keep stock on the shelves,” said Ross.

“We had to ask the store directors to help us manage the traffic in and out of the store on numerous occasions such was the number of customers.”

“Whilst this was a really challenging time, we know the community really appreciated the effort that went into keeping the store running and well stocked,” he said.

Susie Low is the CEO of Atyenhenge-Atherre Aboriginal Corporation (AAAC) who owns the community store in Santa Teresa (Ltyentye Apurte).

“During the COVID-19 lockdown, the AAAC Board decided to reduce the price of all stock by 15% in the store, and Outback Stores immediately put the change in place.”

“Store staff were inundated with orders for essential supplies for local stakeholders such as the school, Aged Care, Pre-School, Catholic Care NT and AAAC. Outback Stores acted quickly to bring an additional manager to Ltyentye Apurte to support the local managers with the extraordinary workload.”

“Cleaning, social distancing and hand sanitising regimes were put in place and monitored. During these uncertain times, the Outback Stores team supported the community above and beyond expectations. Despite community frustration with COVID-19 and subsequent restrictions, the store managers undertook their work with diligence and good humour,” said Susie.

Ingrid Stonhill leads the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation (BAC) in Maningrida, the largest remote community in the Northern Territory.

“Many of our countrymen and women returned to the perceived safety of home from Darwin and other parts of the NT.

That created extra pressure on BAC to deliver services to the surging population in Maningrida and our 32 homelands,” said Ingrid.

“Food security and meeting health needs became an important focus at this time. As we shut down our non-essential areas, we re-arranged staff duties to cope with the growing demand on our Barlmarrk Supermarket and Tucker Run out to outstations.”

“Our working relationship with Outback Stores ensured that our fresh fruit and vegetable deliveries continued twice weekly, even while other food suppliers in Maningrida experienced supply and delivery shortfalls. We were guided by Outback Stores’ expert advice on
the state of domestic and international markets which contributed to keeping pricing at normal levels and avoiding stock piling.”

“The increased demand meant unprecedented delivery loads and shelf-stocking. Our wonderful staff responded by working extra shifts ensuring that our local families and increased outstation population received full weekly deliveries.”

Despite the challenges faced during COVID-19, CEO Michael Borg said he is extremely proud of the collective effort from the Outback Stores team through unprecedented times.

“Our store managers have done an outstanding job. They have faced multiple challenges of additional stock being sent to stores, uplifts in sales, all while adjusting to the ever-changing coronavirus situation and important guidelines of staying on country and limiting travel. We wouldn’t be where we are today without their effort,” he said.

“Our support office team worked tirelessly around the clock to ensure food and other essential supplies were available for stores. In general, stores held good stock availability with minimal out of stocks, which in many cases was better than metro supermarkets.”

“We understand that there is more to transpire in relation to this COVID-19, however the learnings taken from the challenges we have faced over the past four months place our business and the wider industry in a good position to react to any rapid change in the future.”

SUPPLIER SPOTLIGHT

Independent Grocers Darwin

Independent Grocers (IG) Darwin are Outback Stores’ main supplier and play an integral part of ensuring food security for remote communities throughout the Northern Territory. Jennie Collis is the General Manager Independent Grocers Darwin Branch.

“As we saw COVID-19 unfold we experienced people in capital cities panic buying which placed considerable pressure on stock availability throughout the country. From our perspective we knew it was critical to engage with our manufacturers early in the piece to guarantee additional stock for essential services such as remote communities, hospitals and aged care,” said Jennie.

“Educating manufacturers based in Melbourne and Sydney on the demographics of remote communities was really important. Generally, there just isn’t an understanding that remote communities generally only have one store, that gets one delivery, to feed hundreds of people each week. If a store doesn’t receive stock, the community doesn’t have food. To their credit manufacturers stepped up to support us with guaranteeing additional stock.”

Independent Grocers experienced volume increases of up 120% during March to July. The IG and Outback Stores teams were linking up daily to ensure that the right stock was available for communities.

“Our team was working long hours and 7 days a week just to keep up with day to day demand, I know our manufacturers, freight providers and retailers were all doing the same as well. I’m proud of our team and their dedication and contribution towards a collaborative industry effort that provided an outstanding standard of service for remote communities through unprecedented times."