By John Bray
BBC News, West Midlands

image captionBilston, in the borough of Wolverhampton, has a population of more than 25,000

From Monday 12 April, high street businesses in England can once again welcome customers through their doors after lockdown restrictions are eased.

The BBC has been to Bilston, a market town on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, to speak to six small business owners for their perspectives on a challenging 12 months and to gauge levels of optimism.

‘I think it’s going to be a good year’

image captionRochelle Woolery runs a clothing store in the town

Rochelle Woolery opened her clothing store A Bit of Me at the end of October. Less than a week later, her doors were closed as the second national lockdown was called by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“I kind of expected it,” said the 32-year-old. “Obviously it was gutting, but it was either you stop and give up, or carry on and do the best you can with click-and-collect and social media.

“It’s obviously been difficult, as it has for everybody, but I’ve been using social media a lot – Facebook, Instagram – and I’m also getting my website done as well. That has really helped. I upload outfits to social media. I do model them myself. I find that’s how you promote your clothes better and that’s what sells.

“Obviously things could be better, but it’s not been the worst. I’ve definitely had my down days, 100%, but I think I just tend to try to be positive. Hard times never last, do they? So just look forward to the good times. I feel positive about 2021. I think it’s going to be a good year.”

‘I’m constantly being asked ‘when you back?”

image captionKris Poole has owned Krispink Tattoo Studio since 2018

Tattoo artist Kris Poole is ready to welcome customers back into his studio – but needs them to be aware the world has changed.

“Some of the clients don’t understand that there are rules and regulations that I have to adhere to,” he said.

“I’m constantly getting questions ‘when you back? When you back? When you back?’ I’m prepared, ready to come back, and have started booking people in.”

So how has he found life in a pandemic?

“The last 12 months, to start with, I’ll be honest, a little bit depressing. Didn’t know what was happening, bills wise, and stuff like that.

“Luckily I’d put a bit of money aside because we’d heard it [lockdown] was coming. Then you get used to it, lovely summer, and then it was back to work and off again. Then back again for another month and off again.

“Now I think we’ve got to the stage where a lot of people are used to being at home more. And that’s their new norm. Like myself really, I think. We had the grants come through, which helped a lot.”

‘We’re very excited to see our doors back open’

image captionSun Kaur is operations director at The Moby Shop

Sun Kaur describes life on the high street over the past 12 months as “chaotic” and has been frustrated her store was not seen as “essential”.

“For ourselves as a technology shop, it’s been very disappointing to know that the government cannot see us as an essential shop in the 21st Century,” she said.

“So many people are working from home nowadays and they need their laptops, their mobile phones, repaired and up to speed so that they can continue to work.

“Financially as a company, like many other businesses here on the high street, it has had a huge impact on us, but we have had to be quite optimistic, and we’re lucky that we have had some financial support as well as being able to put some funds into the business ourselves.

“It’s been very difficult because we’ve had to run a click-and-collect service which is not really allowing our customers to come in so freely for our sales to be boosted.

“We’re very excited to see our doors back open and it will be nice to see some of our regular customers.”

‘We like to check on our customers’

image captionJag Sandhu’s towel stall had to close during lockdown

Bilston-born market trader Jag Sandhu is proud of his home town.

“Bilston is a little gem in the jewel of Wolverhampton city,” he said. “Bilston’s a lovely community and the people are friendly. With Bilston, you know what you get. They tell you like it is, there’s no airs and graces.”

And he hopes the town’s market will play a central role in the pandemic recovery.

“Traders don’t just serve. They actually ask customers how they are, and it might make somebody’s day.

“It’s not all about the money. We like to check on our customers. So we’re just saying ‘come back, we’re open’ and we really look forward to a good future.”

Financially, it’s been a tough 12 months.

“Fortunately we’ve had a lot of help from the government. We’ve had a lot of support from the council in the form of grants. I think if these grants weren’t around, we would be seriously in financial trouble.

“Wolverhampton Council has frozen rents for anyone who is not trading, which I know some councils haven’t done, which has been a great help. So it’s just helped us to survive and open up and still have our businesses there.

“I feel positive, I feel confident. There’s a lot of houses being built in Bilston, so I think the future for us is good. I’m just looking forward to coming back and seeing all my regular customers again.”

‘We’ve just been hanging on by the skin of our teeth’

image captionRen Collabella’s hair business has been in Bilston for 30 years

Hair stylist Ren Collabella remembers Bilston as a “bustling little town” and believes those days can return post-pandemic.

“The last 12 months for us, and everybody else, has been just unbelievable, to be honest with you,” he said.

“My heart goes out to anyone who’s lost loved ones because I think there’s nothing more important than that. Fortunately for us, our family and our elderly parents have all managed to stay safe, so to us that is a blessing.”

image captionBilston High Street traders are ready to emerge from a third national lockdown

The stylist said business had been “fragmented and so uncertain” because of the lockdowns.

“Financially, we have been given some grants and it has assisted us so far. However, you know the utility bills and the internet and all the other outgoings have remained the same. We’ve just been hanging on by the skin of our teeth.

“My hopes for 2021 are that the numbers stay low, people use their common sense, try and adhere to basic rules and we might see the back of this. I do feel positive, I like to think I’m a positive person, but I do have my apprehensions behind that.”

‘It’s been tough, but I’ve done it for 45 years’

image captionLee Nicholls has been a familiar figure at Bilston Market for 45 years

For more than a century, five generations of Lee Nicholls’ family have managed a stall at Bilston Market.

“We’ve stood the test of time, I suppose you could say, but we keep going. Bilston’s fantastic. It’s been good to us over the years. They’re down to earth, very ordinary people. They like a deal, like we all do, they tell you how it is, straight to the point.”

The fruit and veg trader has been able to stay open during the pandemic.

“Up until Christmas it wasn’t too bad, but the latest lockdown has had a massive effect on our trade. It has slowed it up, but we just keep going – it’s all we can do.

“Back in May we were the only stall open, but slowly people have come back and I think there’s about eight of us working now.

“Custom in May was terrible, terrible, really bad. You could go 20 minutes and not see a person in the place.

“It’s been tough but I’ve done it for 45 years so I know about the ups and downs.

“We hope some more stallholders come back, get a full market again and things will start slowly coming back.”

‘Businesses in Bilston are very resilient’

image captionSimon Archer is manager of Bilston Business Improvement District

Simon Archer’s job as manager of Bilston Improvement District is to promote the town as a shopping destination.

“The last 12 months has been a real challenge,” he admits.

“I have to say the businesses in Bilston are very resilient. We’ve got a lot of independents who have been here a number of years and, fingers crossed, we’re going to come out of it the other side.

“The help that they’ve had from the government has been a real boost because I think without it, some of them would not have come through this unscathed and be able to reopen after lockdown.

“We’ve got so many things going for us in Bilston. We’ve got the market, indoor and outdoor, we’ve got free parking, we’re on a Metro tram line. There are so many things that when we come through lockdown the other side, there’s a lot of reasons for people to come and shop in Bilston. It’s a town with a lot of character and I think we’ll see that in the next few months.”

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