Familiar but strange, comforting yet disorientating… welcome to pre-Christmas shopping like you’ve never done it before.
From joining a 6.30am queue outside of Primark when there are still 22 shopping days before the big day to engaging with security staff when they remind you to please put your mask on, this year’s present hunt seems to have a devilish twist.
‘You put your face mask on / Your face mask off / On off, on off / You’ve turned it inside out
‘You do do the social distance and you turn around / That’s what it’s all about.’
The Bullring today was a world away from those eerie days in mid-March when the unknown world of the first lockdown lay in store and people began to stay away in droves before Prime Minister Boris Johnson slammed the doors shut on March 23.
But while it’s also true to say that the re-emergence of shoppers after the month-long second lockdown today was initially slower than many expected, retailers were still delighted to be back in action.
Steve Hewlett, manager of Retail BID Birmingham which promotes and supports businesses with measures including the regular jet-washing of the city’s streets, said: “It’s great to see the shops back open across the city centre.
“Footfall has been steady today with lots of people wearing masks, which has been good to see.
“Hopefully it’s the start of a profitable period for the retailers which they desperately need.”
Daylight arrived courtesy of a stunning sunrise behind St Martin in the Bull Ring Church where the colours of the rainbow appeared to lie horizontally across Digbeth at dawn.
By then, some 100 shoppers had already entered Primark on High Street.
This 160,000 square foot giant had opened just before 7am at the start of a 15-hour day of trading (its Fort Park Shopping Centre store in Erdington won’t close after its first day of trading until 10pm tomorrow, Thursday night).
The numbers of earlybirds were down on those who had snaked all the way round Marks & Spencer on June 15.
And, of course, they were a mere fraction of the huge crowd of people that had formed 601 days ago on April 11, 2019 when the World’s Biggest Primark had first opened its doors for business three years after the old Pavilions had ceased trading in May, 2016.
But Nina Quigley from Solihull was still delighted to be at the front of the Primark pre-dawn queue, along with Wolverhampton friend Sarah Jane and her daughter, Sophie.
Nina told BirminghamLive: “I’ve left my husband at home while I come and do our Christmas shopping.
“The idea is to get in early and get out early… but I might be in there for two hours!
“I work in the pub industry so was able to come.
“Some of the other stores haven’t moved with the times but you feel sorry for all the staff because this pandemic is going to hit everywhere.”
How life has changed…
Inside the Bullring, there was a bigger queue at 9am for the Footlocker store than there was for the centre’s flagship, Selfridges.
Barely a dozen shoppers were waiting for its doors to slide open on the dot, but then Selfridges doesn’t usually open this early.
Around the Bullring for the next four hours, the number of shoppers was slowly growing, but only in a way that meant social distancing was always a breeze.
If you don’t like being overcrowded at Christmas, then today was for you – a chance to enjoy a bit of elbow room for once.
The biggest problem for anyone wearing glasses of course, was the need to keep wearing a mask indoors.
Shopping outdoors and going into shops from a street during wet, cold weather poses a major problem.
But at least the next time anyone tells you about their cataracts, you will have more sympathy thanks to your steamed up glasses.
Just don’t put a mask on and enter a shop without looking inside first… you don’t want to be so steamed up that you trip.
Purple baubles, dark clouds
Like the rest of the Bullring, Debenhams has been beautifully dressed in traditional fashion for the Christmas season.
Knowing the company’s future had never been so perilous in its 242-year-old history, the staff we spoke to were more emotional the older they were behind the traditionally British stiff upper lip now hidden by masks.
They are crossing their fingers that an 11th hour buyer comes forward to save a business that was originally founded in 1778 – years before the likes of M&S, House of Fraser, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols.
Not to mention John Lewis which pulled out of Grand Central in the summer after being closed since March.
One assistant reckoned anyone buying an item from Debenhams this week would still have 28 days to return something, but feared the worst after the early part of the New Year should liquidation of the company prove to be terminal.
Whatever happens to Debenhams, Birmingham’s retail scene seems to have big changes afoot.
Forever 21 left the Bullring last December and GAP followed suit in October.
Now there’s a dark shadow looming over the Arcadia group, too, whose centre businesses include Topshop and Topman and Burton on New Street which has yet to replace Morrisons / My Local (July 2016), the original Primark (Apr 2019) and Thomas Cook (Sep 2019).
Over the years the Bullring itself has lost tech stores like Dixons, Bose and Apple.
Across the road from Primark on High Street, Currys PC World has also recently been shut down – the company now has three stores around the city but not one in the centre itself.
WH Smith, founded in 1792, left its giant High Street store in spring 2018 when it downsized into a much smaller unit that has replaced the Union Street end of the old BHS.
Time to come in from the cold?
One store that seems to be unfairly overlooked is House of Fraser on Corporation Street.
Even those whose job it is to promote the city regret that the company is comparatively non-communicative under the ownership of Mike Ashley.
But credit where credit is due.
Nobody two years ago would have predicted this store would still be standing and that John Lewis would have left Grand Central.
And, do you know what, it’s still a very warm and welcoming place to shop – there might be fewer members of staff to greet you but they are all still proud of the store and enthusiastic, too.
The basement has been reopened with a vast amount of stock from Evans Cycles which has moved from Temple Street.
The ground floor looks fantastic to the point that it is still probably the best looking floor of any department store in the city.
Carry on going up and you’ll discover that the top two floors have been closed down and that the fourth floor seems to be half-covered with suitcases that are clearly not going to go anywhere soon given the collapse of the holiday industry.
But since there are some terrific bargains to be had with everything from shirts to suits and dresses, perhaps it’s time that House of Fraser on Corporation Street came back in from the cold.
One sales lady told me: “We haven’t been told anything about our future so we are just trading as normal… but it is very quiet today.
“I did think we would have more customers than we have had.”
In that sense, staff will be crossing their fingers just like their counterparts at Debenhams and Arcadia.
But what a shame though that the traditional grotto was cancelled last year.
It has not been reopened this year either even though it still exists in a hidden corner of the fifth floor. Fingers crossed for 2021, eh!
The first lockdown lasted 84 mostly record-breakingly sunny days just when everybody was told to stay indoors for 23 hours out of every 24, seven days per week.
The shopping centre reopened on June 15 and the day after the Bull Ring Indoor Market was deluged with flood water following heavy rain.
Similarly, the most recent month-long lockdown has been one of the driest sunniest Novembers on record, just the kind of weather the German Market lovers and stall holders are usually crying out for.
Fresh from a stunning sunrise,, the heavens duly opened at lunchtime today… a move which saw far more than the recommended eight people queuing inside Pret A Manager on Colmore Row where all the tables had been removed.
Perhaps we should have lockdowns based on the weather.
If it’s cold damp and wet, that’s tier 3 – everyone stay home.
If it’s cold, crisp and sunny… that’s tier 1 – everyone can come out, but keep socially distanced all the same. Etc.
Until common sense is given its full head, here’s another problem with shopping at this time of the year under Tier 3 restrictions.
You will still need to refuel, but only through takeaway. And, most likely, you’ll have to do it standing up, too.
As for the loos… Debenhams had signs up saying its were closed – members of the public should use the general Bullring ones.
So yes, you can still go Christmas shopping.
But not in a way that we knew it.
Plan ahead. Keep socially distanced. Think ahead for the loos. Or go into camel mode. Stay safe. And enjoy.
If you can.