Badri “totally accepts” the measures are necessary, but says they constitute an “unprecedented extra cost” that businesses like hers were in no position to take on. “When you are losing such a huge amount of your money, and you have to pay extra to stay in business, where there is no support, it is very difficult,” she said.
Other sectors have been forced to absorb cumbersome expenses of their own. Gyms, for instance, have replaced communal soap dispensers with individually wrapped bottles to reduce surface contamination.
Although many fitness facilities are saving on their laundry bill by asking guests to bring their own towels, round-the-clock sanitizing of equipment and surfaces is nevertheless eating into their budget.
Restaurants have also had to radically rethink their business model, relying on local delivery firms to reach a smaller catchment of customers and absorbing the additional cost of single-use takeaway packaging, not to mention the outgoings on additional health and safety measures in the kitchen.
Those eateries with sufficient space have experimented with partitioning and spreading out their customers, but the loss of larger bookings and walk-ins will no doubt have hit their balance sheets.
On top of this, extra signage, QR-code menus, queuing areas, plexiglass screens, sanitizing stations, plastic tablecloths and cashless payment systems have not only multiplied expenses but also taken away some of the magic of the dining-out experience. Who enjoys wearing their mask between courses?
No wonder supermarkets and other food-retail outlets have seen a bounce at the expense of restaurateurs since the pandemic began. According to Somaia Basha, a Dubai-based senior research analyst for Euromonitor International, Saudi Arabia’s restaurant sector lost 37 percent of its value in 2020.
“Because of the initial lockdown, we have seen overspending on food retail. On the other hand, of course, restaurants were massively hit,” she told Arab News.
SMEs have been forced to adapt quickly to new trends, which, although they existed prior to the pandemic, have been pushed into overdrive out of necessity. Take, for instance, the digital transformation of home delivery and payment methods.
“COVID-19 has elevated or increased the speed of a lot of trends that were actually already happening,” said Basha. “So, before COVID-19, there was transformation of payments, there were delivery options that were getting traction. But after COVID-19, these became more important.
“Progress that we expected to take years has been happening over the course of one year in some countries and even just a matter of months in others. This high speed is transforming many industries.
“Now, imagine you are one of these restaurants and suddenly you are faced with this issue of either going digital or shutting down. You are going to have to invest money when you are already making a loss, because you are not generating any revenue, and you are not there on delivery platforms.
“So, you are now going to spend a couple of thousand dollars to be there, to be available in the digital world. And then, when you go into the digital world, you will find you have multiple platforms, which are competing, and you have prices dropping.”
Perhaps, then, the innovations that this pandemic has driven forward, with companies forced to invest and adapt to ensure their long-term survival, are the real silver lining of this traumatic and costly year. True, not all sectors can benefit from digital technologies, but those that do can expect to bounce back much faster.
“It is a challenging time for restaurants all over the world. They are playing in an area they have not maneuvered in before,” said Basha. “It is unknown territory.”
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