The demise of supermarket Christmas schemes is a blow for the less well-off.
Supermarket bank accounts and loyalty cards have all but wiped out the special Christmas savings schemes which many low-income shoppers rely on. Of the UK's five leading supermarket chains, only Sainsbury's and the Co-op offer Christmas schemes - and the Sainsbury's one may not last very long.

Sainsbury's Christmas Saver Account boosts its normal 3.25 per cent interest rate to 6.25 per cent for sums paid in by the end of October and not withdrawn again till December. The Co-op plan adds a pounds 2 bonus to every completed pounds 38 card of saver stamps redeemed against goods in December.

Janice Allen, at the National Consumer Council, believes year-round supermarket savings accounts are no substitute: "Christmas schemes are a way of disciplining yourself when you have very little leeway in your budget. We would be very concerned if these schemes were to disappear completely, because they offer the less well-off an option which they value highly."

David Noble, Sainsbury's Bank marketing director, says: "The whole image of saving for Christmas is more strongly attached to people who are older, who have less interest in credit than the younger age-group."

Nevertheless, Sainsbury's is considering dropping its Christmas Saver Account from next year onwards, because very few people use it. As the chain's instant-access account offers a slightly better interest rate - 6.75 per cent - with no restrictions on withdrawals, most Sainsbury's shoppers naturally enough pick the better-paying and more flexible option.

But for savers putting away the bare minimum, the practical difference between the two accounts is negligible.

Making 12 monthly payments of pounds 10 each into the Christmas Saver Account, making sure you qualify for your bonus, would earn you interest of pounds 4.02. The same investment in the instant- access account would earn you just 24p extra.

For some, it is the very inflexibility of Christmas savings plans which makes them worthwhile. They discourage you from taking your money out early, as that means you would lose out.

Last month's Personal Investment Authority report on low-income savers says: "The additional expenditure incurred at Christmas is hard to accommodate on a low income.

"Christmas clubs and supermarket savings-stamps were used to save up for additional food. [This] was attractive as it offered putting away money as part of a routine and it was seen as savings that were ring- fenced".

Asda offers a similar scheme to the Co-op's, this time adding a pounds 2 bonus to every pounds 48 saver card redeemed between 9 November and 31 December.

About 678,000 Asda shoppers, over 10 per cent of the store's customer base, use this scheme. Mark Williamson, a spokesman for Asda, says: "A significant proportion of our customers like this way of saving and like the scheme, which is why we've kept it and will continue to do so."

Mr Noble accepts it is partly the concentration of resources on newer initiatives such as loyalty cards that explains the slow demise of Christmas savings schemes for the poor.

He adds: "You will find that in the period from the end of November to just before Christmas, you see an increase in redemptions."

Other chains, such as Somerfield, offer savings-stamps schemes which are not specifically tied to Christmas, but where redemptions do hit a peak at around that time of year. Over 90 per cent of Somerfield savings stamps are redeemed in November, December or January.

Pete Williams, a spokesman for Somerfield, says: "It is all geared around Christmas. But we don't feel anyone should be penalised if they fill up the stamps card and then, for whatever reason, don't use it at Christmas. Other cultures have other things to save for."