CAUTIOUS optimism is the prevailing mood among Barnsley’s retailers ahead of the first Covid Christmas - with many simply happy to be back.

While some shutters remain down, town centre shops have had their first full week of trade after reopening last Wednesday.

Retailers have missed valuable weeks of seasonal trade and are now playing catch-up - a scenario which could spell disaster for some - and while Barnsley Council issued more than £44m in grants to support around 4,100 businesses before the second lockdown, many smaller and independent firms struggled to survive.

But the authority is confident it can entice shoppers back into the town centre - with dozens of local shops signing up to its Barnsley Gift Card scheme, a show of support to local traders and an effort to ‘kick-start’ the Covid response.

And shoppers responded positively, with 85,000 people visiting the town centre last week according to council figures.

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Footfall is 64 per cent of what it typically is - but at four per cent above the national average, according to the government-backed High Streets Task Force, that figure is encouraging.

“People seemed to rush out last Wednesday, which is good for us - certainly for the book trade, the autumn period to Christmas is our busiest time of year,” said Keith Cowans, who opened The Book Vault on Market Street last December.

“We’ve missed four weeks of that.

“It’s not been ideal, but you’ve got to be positive. Customers have said they just wanted to get out and do things.”

Keith, 49, said the shop had been in the ‘peculiar position’ of operating during lockdown longer than any other time.

Among the survival measures the shop put in place are online ‘click-and-collect’ orders, and registering with bookshop.org - a website for independent book shops, set up to counter big retailers such as Amazon and supermarkets.

“By the second lockdown, those things were a lot more established,” added Keith.

“The town centre needs independent shops for that variety and choice that you don’t get elsewhere.”

Sarah Hunter of Kingston Jewellers, in the Victorian Arcade, said the fact that more people were turning to the internet had even been a boon to local firms.

“Customers have actually said to me that they want to support local businesses,” added the 61-year-old, who took to delivering items herself during lockdown.

“People seem to be searching shops out - a lot have said they’ve Googled us.”

Businesses on the Arcade normally see their best months around the New Year.

And Sarah said the shop has surpassed its sales figures from this time last year, despite the lockdown restrictions.

“I can be optimistic because I’m open,” she said. “I know a lot of people haven’t got money to spend. If I didn’t have a job, I’d probably think very differently.”

Mark Rayner, 58, director of Frank Bird, said he was ‘surprised’ the menswear firm had performed quite so well.

“We had a phenomenal week, we’ve come back very strongly,” he said. “We’re probably up 20 per cent on the same week last year. People have been fed up - they’re not going out, they couldn’t get on holiday, so they’re buying clothing.”

Online sales have become a large part of the shop’s trade during lockdown. But, when your business is closely tied to seasonal changes, the internet can become a lifeline as government guidance over opening changes with little warning.

Managing director of Bigwicks, on Market Street, Carl Esberger said: “I’m not sure we’d be here now if we didn’t have the online part of the business.

“We’re fortunate to not be reliant on the high street, or the second lockdown could have been the nail in the coffin.

“We are a gift-oriented business - those three months leading to Christmas make up 60 per cent of our sales. To lose a month of that trade was quite devastating, even considering the grants available.”

Leaders have warned Barnsley’s hospitality trade might never recover from this year, and Carl, 50, said shops like his could face a similar fate if a proper exit strategy isn’t identified.

“It’s a very strange feeling walking around town at the minute,” he added.

“I worry with the new development, it is going to have to draw a lot of customers.

“But will they be drawn to all parts of town? Market Street could become the poor relation to the rest of Barnsley.”

Coun Tim Cheetham, cabinet spokesperson for place said: “It’s been an extremely tough year for businesses in all sectors and Christmas is one of the most important trading times of the year.

“We have been working hard to provide businesses with support from our Enterprising Barnsley team and by launching new initiatives like the Barnsley Gift Card to provide them with new opportunities to help aid their recovery.

“The gift card will help to boost our local economy following the impact of coronavirus, but is just one element of our response to the pandemic.

“We’re doing everything we can to ensure our high streets thrive in the future. Schemes like the gift card, the ShopAppy click and collect service and the investment committed to Barnsley’s Principal Towns, with businesses on high streets in Cudworth, Goldthorpe, Penistone, Wombwell, Royston and Hoyland benefitting from £5m to revitalise shop fronts, are all ways in which we are striving to maintain the health of our high streets.

“We have launched the town centre Christmas campaign to let people know what’s happening in Barnsley and encourage people to shop local and support independents, including our market traders, who have also had a difficult year.

“Although we can’t provide any Christmas events this year, we have adapted our annual Christmas Bright Nights offer, so that people can still enjoy the Christmas atmosphere whilst shopping, with the Winter Windowland illuminated art installations across key buildings in the town centre, and also enjoy a range of creative and festive digital activities from home, delivered by Bright Nights, Barnsley Museums and Library @ the Lightbox.

“Whilst we want people to support businesses and shop with them, we must remind people to shop safely, observe social distancing rules and wear face coverings where necessary.

“Christmas shopping is exciting but can also be hectic - so if there are queues please be patient and kind to each other and staff, and remember we’re all in this together. People can support local businesses by using the gift card and ShopAppy - these are great options if people are struggling to get out.

“A key priority of our recovery plan is to support businesses to ensure that Barnsley’s’ journey on the road to recovery is successful and we continue to fight back against the impact the pandemic has had, not only from an economic perspective, but also an emotional one.”