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Coronavirus: How have independent shopkeepers been faring?

Mark Healey of Walter Smith Butchers

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“I just said ‘wow’.” Mark Healey says he was stunned to see customers fight over meat products

From breaking up fights among shoppers to battling to keep shelves filled, the independent shopkeepers who have been allowed to open have faced many challenges since the coronavirus pandemic hit. The BBC went to three high streets in Birmingham to see how businesses have fared.

Faces contorted with desperation and determination, the customers of Walter Smith Butchers were taking no prisoners as they grappled for the last bit of meat in the fridge, resulting in a scuffle on the shop floor.

Manager Mark Healey watched in amazement from behind the counter.

“There were bodies everywhere fighting for a pack of chicken breasts,” he recalls. “It was hairy. I just said ‘wow’.”

As panic-buying happened across the country in March, Mr Healey couldn’t sell meat quickly enough from his shop in Erdington High Street, Birmingham.

“We’d have a whole shop full,” he says, his arms demonstrating how far and wide the throngs of customers stretched. “It was like a free-for-all.”

Sales were up 50% in the early days of lockdown. In recent weeks they have remained strong at 30% higher than usual.

“We’ve acquired the supermarket customer – we’d lost them for about 10 years now. I think we’ll keep them too.”

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Work has been carried out to remove on-street parking in Erdington to widen pavements

As lockdown rules were eased last week, shoppers – many wearing masks – filled Erdington, a suburb of Birmingham some four miles north-east of the city centre.

But it has been pretty busy since the start, with Birmingham City Council so concerned about problems with social distancing that it is widening pavements and painting signs reminding people of the 2m rules.

In among the chains like B&M Bargains and Poundland, Erdington’s many independent supermarkets, hardware shops and European food stores are open, with shoppers queuing – 2m apart – outside.

Paul Beresford has seen a sharp rise in new customers at Erdington Pet Centre.

“It’s been good for us,” he says.

“I’ve had to close our shop in Wolverhampton city centre because there’s no food shops around it so people aren’t going in. But here, we’ve been very busy. People have been coming in saying, ‘We didn’t know you were here’.”

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Paul Beresford is grateful for a government grant he has received to help keep his pet shops afloat

Eight miles south of Erdington is Kings Heath, where pavements are also being widened to cope with social distancing challenges.

Long queues stretch outside the high street’s seven banks, two large supermarkets and the likes of Poundland, Boots and Wilkos, but customers have also stayed loyal to the independent businesses that have been able to remain open.

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Socially distant queues line the pavements along the high street in Kings Heath

Mohammed Junaid, of Buywise, realised his job as a shopkeeper was about to change when he took his little brother to football and returned to find 100 cases of 36 toilet rolls had been cleared. He had been gone for only two hours.

“I walked into the shop and had such a shock – it looked completely empty because these huge cases had filled the shop and they were all gone.”

Queues of 20-30 people formed outside his shop. Many headed over from Asda, across the road, when they found the shelves empty there.

Mr Junaid enlisted his father and uncle to help with crowd control, as people ignored his three-in-the-shop limit and refused to social distance outside in the queue.

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Mohammed Junaid said scenes at Buywise had been “crazy” during lockdown

“Some people gave me a lot of stick,” he says, remembering some strained encounters amid the madness. “I’d say, come on, we’re all adults here.

“It was a very tricky time to be a shopkeeper.”

While the shelves of the area’s big supermarkets were empty of hand sanitizer, antibacterial spray, toilet rolls and eggs, Buywise – more often than not – was fully stocked. How?

“I normally order from one wholesaler, but I went to 10 instead,” says Mr Junaid. “Me and my uncle were getting up at 6am and going round them all making sure we had everything. Then I’d go and do deliveries for the elderly and then back at the shop, closing at 10pm.”

Around the corner from Buywise, organic vegan health shop Xover Nutrition is open to walk-in customers and has started doing home deliveries.

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Stef Emery (pictured) and Charlotte Hanlon of Xover Nutrition have been working seven days a week to serve people health products

Business has been booming, says Charlotte Hanlon, whose brother opened the shop two years ago.

“We’ve had a lot of people come to us wanting to improve their health, and boost their immune systems,” she says. “They’re wanting vitamin C, or going organic, taking capsules, eating nuts and seeds, that kind of thing.”

They’d planned to start deliveries later in the year, but when the pandemic hit, they leapt into action.

They wear masks and gloves while taking deliveries across Birmingham. “One of our customers is 95 years old,” adds Ms Hanlon. “So it’s really rewarding when we go out and do these things.”

Across the road, Mohammed Arif has kept open his family cycling shop, Bike Pro, a stalwart of the high street for 28 years.

In the days before the lockdown, he was increasingly worried about what lay ahead.

“Then one of my suppliers texted me saying bikes are an essential service. I slept peacefully that night,” he says.

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Mohammed Arif of Bike Pro in Kings Heath has helped keep the cycling community on the move

He’s been kept very busy. “There’s been a huge rise in people wanting to buy indoor trainers. If you’re in isolation then you ride indoors – there are apps where you can ride with your mates, or do a stage of the Tour de France.

“We sold out within a week. There’s also been a big upturn in bicycle sales, and a spike in children’s bikes, with the kids off school.”

Another bustling high street is in Sparkhill, two and a half miles east of Kings Heath. Here, on the busy Stratford Road, 95% of shops are independent, the highest number in the UK in 2016 and 2017, according to the Local Data Company (LDC).

It is a high street that, pre-lockdown, was always vibrant, filled with families buying fresh meat, fruit, vegetables and spices from its many grocery shops, the wares spilling out on to the pavement on colourful, well-stocked stalls.

According to Gulrez Hussain, who is working on the grill outside Best Pakora Shop, there has not been a significant downturn in customers.

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Gulrez Hussain of Best Pakora has been working 10-hour days during lockdown

“It is quieter in the day because of Ramadan,” he says. “But around 7-8pm, it is so busy.

“This is always the busiest month of the year [Ramadan], and it’s no different this year. We’ve had to take on extra workers.”

At Foodworld, there is a steady stream of shoppers gazing at the produce outside. A sign above the door to the inside shop states only one person is allowed in at a time.

It refers to one member of a household.

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Sparkhill’s high street has remained busy throughout lockdown

“Some come with five or six people and we have to tell them to stay outside,” says proprietor Amjad Rehman.

He has become increasingly frustrated at what he sees as people ignoring social distancing rules.

“If you look down Stratford Road, you would not think there was a pandemic.

“We try to keep people apart, but they don’t listen. They think you’re trying to be in command, but it’s about safety.”

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This sign refers to one member of a household being allowed in the shop at a time

Mr Rehman says the whole pandemic experience has made him reflect on life, and the way he goes about his business.

“It’s taught me a lot. We have this black cloud over our heads… and we should be living simply, helping the needy, helping the poor.”

He’s also started delivering to customers who are struggling or in isolation.

“I’m going to keep doing it when this is over. We should all be helping each other.”

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