Small businesses take big hit

Small businesses have taken a knock as a result of trading restrictions during lockdown, while some spaza shops have managed to keep going
MAKING ENDS MEET: Small businesses have taken a knock as a result of trading restrictions during lockdown, while some spaza shops have managed to keep going
Image: Supplied


Transaction data paints a bleak picture of the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic  on SA’s small businesses.

In the health, beauty and fitness category — the worst-affected sector — credit-card transactions have recorded a 90% decline since the lockdown began, according to data from an SA payment provider.

Katlego Maphai, co-founder and CEO of Yoco, a fintech start-up specialising in payments for small businesses, shared the findings of its latest research with the Financial Mail.

“Through our platform and the results of a recent merchant survey, we have seen up to a 90% decrease in in-person transactions since the lockdown began.”

Yoco, which has been operating since 2015, sells a small device that business owners can use to accept bank card payments.

The company has about 80,000 merchants registered on its platform.

This includes watchmaker and retailer Daniel Wellington and gourmet restaurant chain Sushi Box.

It also includes physiotherapists, micro-retailers who operate from markets, laundromats and beauty technicians. It processed transactions worth R6bn in 2019.

Once a quarter, the company conducts a survey on the health of a sample of 10% of its user base. This is compared against its data for transaction values and payment volumes.

Over time, Yoco has been able to put together a steady stream of insights “like an index”, Maphai says, which it calls the Small Business Pulse.

The results of its most recent assessment indicate a damaged small business sector.

When people began to self-isolate and companies first implemented work-from-home measures in the second half of March, transaction activity already dipped.

Food, drink and hospitality players took an immediate 30% hit.

Retailers, however, were resilient through this period. In part, this could have been driven by the panic buying that preceded the lockdown.

The data seems to support those reports, showing a 68% rise in transactions for retail operations in the week that people were preparing for the lockdown.

Despite the social distancing rules at the time, drink and hospitality operators saw a 54% uptick that week, with health care, beauty and fitness looking to have been the lowest priority, with a 28% increase in transactions.

As expected, the lockdown has not been kind to small business.

By the week of April 8, Yoco’s users experienced an average 80% decline in transactions and payments across the board.

This trend is slightly different in township economies, which show a less severe decline.

Tina Mason, COO of  A2Pay, a fintech company with about 1,800 point of sale and stock management terminals at spaza shops in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, said spaza shops had held up better than expected during the lockdown.

Business for spaza shop owners who used A2Pay dropped to about R50,000 a month on average, which was 30% lower than January, Mason said.

About 80% of their sales is made up of groceries — which have declined — while the balance is made up of virtual goods such as airtime, prepaid electricity and DStv payments, which have grown during the period.

Mason said virtual goods were widely available at supermarkets and fuel stations but with the lockdown restricting movement, people in townships had turned to spaza shops.

Though these goods don’t offer as high margins as grocery items, they have helped spaza shops to trade.

She said that if consumers stopped buying items such as mobile data and airtime, that would be a real indicator that the economy had taken a huge turn for the worse — they were now considered to be necessities.

The biggest pressure point for spaza shop revenues has been the ban on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol — which make up a sizeable chunk of sales — together with restrictions on non-essential goods such as hair products.

That said, most of these businesses have managed to keep trading.

Jon Harris, head of commercial at A2Pay, said only about 10% of its merchants had shut down their businesses altogether over the period, mainly because of the restrictions on the sale of hot food.

CEO and co-founder of micro-transaction platform uKheshe, Clayton Hayward, said in the broader economy, the worst-hit industry had been hospitality.

But Hayward said Covid-19 might also drive some changes in payment methods — uKheshe’s data showed that consumers preferred contactless payments, citing safety and cleanliness. — Financial Mail 

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