A few weeks ago I was asked to share my thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for Gibraltar in 2021. My thoughts would eventually be published in the Spring edition of the Chamber of Commerce's Gibraltar Business magazine some time in March. In these days of the 6 hour news cycle, I was a little worried that anything I wrote would be hopelessly out of date by the time it got published - I seem to have written in broad enough terms that I've mostly avoided that particular pitfall.
The two key themes I touched upon in the article, which you can read by clicking the link and visiting the digital copy of the magazine, are that Gibraltar was (and is) months and months ahead of the rest of world in the vaccination stakes and that, separately, local business would face the challenge of competing in a new environment where web-based business had all the advantages, a challenge that was already present but which was turbo-charged by the experience of the pandemic.
Today, a few weeks since I submitted the piece for publication, Gibraltar has indeed now concluded the vaccination of the adult population (practically) and is now in the process of lifting all the Covid restrictions imposed on our lives this past year. Just yesterday we learned that masks would no longer be required anywhere other than in enclosed public spaces. In Gibraltar, as from Friday morning there will no longer be a curfew, lifting one of the last remaining limits on the liberties of the local population.
The picture in the rest of Europe is, however, quite different.
The Covid picture in Europe once more appears to be worsening at an alarming rate. The third wave is now considered inevitable and, as much as we are returning to normality here, our businesses are not going to have the benefit of the tourist trade in earnest for a long time yet. In addition to the lack of a tourist trade, local consumers of many of the goods supplied by shops here will continue to vote with their fingers, as they continue to acquire goods online, regardless of controls and costs added to the mix by the Post Office/import duty.
It's important to stress the reality, if it wasn’t already patently clear, that local consumers are not unlike consumers elsewhere - we are spoilt for choice online, with the latest items, or the best deals, a few clicks away. Whether these wares are delivered here or delivered next door, it's an unstoppable, global force, that is not going away.
I said in the article for the magazine that the future for small businesses is hard to describe - but I meant that in a positive way - it wasn't a summary declaration of 'game over' for Main Street! There's an opportunity, borne both of a crisis and the inevitability of the online shopping reality, for businesses to pause and reflect on the fundamental business model of their particular enterprise. Some of the questions businesses should be asking themselves are going to be very difficult indeed, no less difficult than the answers themselves. It is also true however that, by not asking themselves these questions, businesses are leaving their future to a chance that doesn't favour those who choose to stand still and pretend 2021 isn't happening.
It may be that these questions lead to a recalibration of the interaction between small business, the community it serves and the Government that regulates it. It may be that these conversations drive a shift in our perception of what Main Street can be about, along with changes to the way business operates in Gibraltar, changes which have been considered 'impossible' for decades but which, when the chips are down, all stakeholders can and should rally round to enable, in order to shape a new future for small business in Gibraltar
The problem for local business is that, in terms of vaccination, Gibraltar is leading the pack. The rest of the world needs more time.