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Eerie quiet as hustle and bustle vanishes from West Bromwich town centre

By Heather Large | West Bromwich | Features | Published:

The town centre would usually have been full of students and office staff grabbing a bite to eat during their lunch break.

The town would usually be filled with students at lunchtime

But with Sandwell College's campuses now shut and many people following Government advice and working from home, West Bromwich is eerily quiet.

By Monday afternoon a vast number of shops, restaurants and cafes already had their shutters down and just a handful of stalls remained open on the outdoor market which would usually be a hive of activity.

Many businesses based at New Square Shopping Centre had already closed including big names such as H&M, River Island and Primark, Now those not selling essentials have also followed suit at the request of Boris Johnson.

But despite fewer retailers to choose from some shoppers were still venturing out on to the High Street on Monday, many of whom were wearing face masks or covering their mouths with scarves.

Some shoppers wore masks while visiting the town centre

And there were a few people sat on the benches drinking a takeaway cup of coffee, having a cigarette or chatting on the phone.

At Lloyds Bank, customers were queuing up patiently outside and following the social distancing rules outlined on big signs which stated that only five people were allowed inside at any one time.

With all but a few stalls on the market in the High Street empty, some of the remaining traders said they didn't know how much long they would stay open due to falling footfall and the uncertainty over what lies ahead.

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They explained that they didn't think it made financial sense to continue setting up each day if there were no customers visiting their stalls.

But in the end the decision was made for them.

Shoppers are staying away from the High Street

Davinder Singh, who sells mobile phone accessories and carry out repairs from the stand he has run for 10 years, said on Monday that he didn't think it was worth remaining open for long because he wasn't going to make enough money to cover the rent for his pitch.

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He had even recently started selling hand sanitiser in a bid to bring in a little bit of money towards paying his bills.

"For the last two weeks, it's been very quiet. All the shops are closing and people only want to buy groceries, tissues and hand sanitiser. They're not interested in anything else at the moment and a lot of people are staying at home or just going to the supermarket," said the 29-year-old.

Fellow trader Ahmed Furmumy, 36, who also offers mobile repairs from his stall, said he had stayed open so people could collect their fixed phones.

"The market is open Monday to Saturday but nobody is coming. Most of the stalls aren't here and there aren't any customers because everyone is staying indoors. I've decided I'm going to close when everybody has collected their phones. It's not worth staying open now," he said.

A trader takes no chances on the High Street market

Grace Manders, who runs a jacket potato stand at New Square, said last weekend had been busier than expected but there had been a significant drop in the number of visitors to the shopping centre since then.

She too had decided it was time to pull the shutters down.

"I think now most of the shops are shut it's like a ghost town. I was going to stay open until I was told I couldn't stay open because even if I just make £30, it's still £30 towards some food but I think I'm going to have to close.

"Even McDonald's is shutting. As someone selling food, it doesn't seem right that we're still open if McDonald's is shut. That shows how serious it is," said the 27-year-old.

Grace, who has been running the stand for just over a year, said she was considering if there was a way to still cater to her regular customers but wasn't sure if it was going to be possible or if there was going to be enough demand with more people working from home.

Optimistic Earl Grant at his daughter's food shop

"We will have to see what happens and how long this goes on for. I don't think we will be back to normal for a long time yet. I think we have to write this year off," she added.

But one trader who is feeling more confident about the future is Earl Grant who works at his daughter Natalie Farrell's Afro-Caribbean food shop.

The business has only been open for five weeks but they've already attracted some loyal customers who are returning each week to stock up on groceries.

Face masks are becoming a common sight

Mr Grant said the only difficulties they had faced were getting their hands on stock and rising costs due to a surge in demand for fresh produce over the past two weeks.

"It has been quite busy but it's not been easier for us to get the stock. A box of yams used to cost £18, now it's £40 so customers are noticing a difference," explained the 60-year-old.

He was keeping his fingers crossed that shop could remain open even under lockdown measures.

"No of us can see what is going to happen. We're hoping we can carry on trading. I think if we can carry on getting stock and we're allowed to stay open, we will because people need groceries. With a little bit of luck we should get through this," he added.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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