Bars, restaurants and retail had their best Christmas in years, as Australians enjoyed newfound freedom

Punters on Chapel Street enjoyed themselves in the last few months of 2020. (Alexander Bogatyrev, SOPA Images, LightRocket via Getty Images)
  • Small businesses may have enjoyed a late-year boom after enduring some of the toughest trading conditions in recent memory.
  • New data suggests Australians have been making up for lost time, as bar, restaurant and cafe revenues boomed in December, up 10% on their level last year nationally, and more than twice that in Victoria.
  • Chapel Street Precinct general manager Chrissie Maus told Business Insider Australia, the experience has extended to retail, with foot traffic similarly up on last year and support for local businesses shining through.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

After enduring an incredibly difficult year, some Australian businesses look like they at least finished with a bang.

Few among them did it tougher than those in Melbourne, where rolling lockdowns shuttered businesses and kept shoppers at home for months on end.

With stage four restrictions easing from late October however, some enjoyed something of a boom in the final weeks of the year.

“The streets have got that cool vibe when you’re out there. You can really feel that it’s buzzing again in the precinct,” Chapel Street Precinct general manager Chrissie Maus told Business Insider Australia.

“This December was actually stronger than the December prior and foot traffic that we saw was stronger than in 2019.”

After nine months of tough trading conditions, the return of patrons and residents to businesses has helped inject some new life into the community.

The Precinct, which represents 2,200 businesses, lost 17 in Victoria’s first lockdown and a handful more in the second.

It’s due to strong support however, Maus said, that in the last five months 49 more have opened for business, ending the year stronger than it began.

“The community has really rallied to support local businesses which is huge relief for business owners. The message is really clear. If people don’t support local businesses, they’ll simply disappear.”

Spending ended 2020 with a bang

The latest figures say the precinct is not unique in that respect.

On Monday, new preliminary retail figures only cover November, but showed sales up 7% nationally, with Victoria alone up 22.4% following the lifting of restrictions.

Many of Australia’s bars, cafes and restaurants meanwhile appear to have followed, as many eagerly bid farewell to their annus horribilis.

Separate data, drawn from more than 7,000 venues nationally and provided to Business Insider Australia by software provider Lightspeed, paints a largely positive picture of Australians out and about.

Bar tills around the country took in 10% more in December than they did the year previous, while revenues were 25.4% higher than pre-COVID.

Interestingly, it shows Victorians, hot out of lockdown and under instruction from Premier Dan Andrews to “get on the beers”, did just that, splashing 19% more than last year at bars – the biggest uptick of any state.

South Australia jumped 12%, while Queensland and New South Wales enjoyed 10% growth, despite the latter coming under tighter restrictions ahead of Christmas.

After watering holes, restaurants proved almost as resurgent. Nationally, revenues were up 17% in December year-on-year, while Western Australian diners spent 42% more.

Meanwhile, Queenslanders spent 20 cents more per dollar, while Victorians and South Australians splashed out 20 cents and 19 cents more apiece.

The one straggler appears to be New South Wales, where end-of-year revenues were hampered by COVID-19 fears and a northern beaches lockdown. Restaurant revenues barely rose at all from November to December, while most other states recorded double digit growth.

Of course, even within cities, the virus has exposed stark distinctions.

“We’re lucky in the respect that we’ve got 2.8 kilometres of open air shopping here which is obviously safer,” Maus said.

“It’s a lot tougher in [Melbourne] city and even areas like Chadstone are struggling right now with people still apprehensive about those kinds of major shopping centres.”

So too has it left an indelible mark on those businesses standing, with Maus noting some have strengthened and innovated their business models for good.

Going into the a new year, businesses just hope that they’ll be backed by government.

“This is about continuing the momentum, increasing foot traffic, and continuing to build,” Maus said.

“It’s about making sure that by the time we get to April when JobKeeper stops, that we have made our economy so strong, that every single business can get to the end of this.”