Last-minute £6bn shopping spree averts disaster on the high street

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More than 20 million people hit the streets to finish their Christmas shopping yesterday, spending around £2bn on gifts and festive food.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) predicted that a total of £6bn would be spent in the week up to Christmas Day, with the lion's share spent in the three days to Saturday, up 5 per cent on the same week last year.

Today alone, shoppers could spend up to £1.14bn, or £800,000 a minute, according to a survey by TNS for Sainsbury's Bank. On the final day of Christmas trading last year, £1.59bn was spent.

The frantic pace of consumer spending is set to slow by this afternoon, as people come home to wrap their presents or head off to be with their families on Christmas Day.

"Most traders, despite opening for normal Sunday trading, expect to be quiet by early afternoon," said Richard Dodd, a spokesman for the BRC.

So is this a bumper Christmas for trading, or a washout? Consumer analysts are split.

Early this month, the highly regarded City analyst Richard Ratner, from broker Seymour Pierce, predicted 2006 could be the worst Christmas for 25 years on the high street. But the BRC said Mr Ratner's prediction had failed to materialise.

"We always thought this was far too gloomy a prediction," said Mr Dodd. "I don't think we could call this year a bonanza but it is not a disaster either.

"Five per cent growth will be seen by many retailers as acceptable or good."

However, Footfall, an organisation that measures how many people enter shops, painted a different picture. It said that while the numbers of customers in shops this week were 35 per cent higher than last week, they were actually 11 per cent lower than the same week last year.

"There was a massive leap in footfall this week but we think today will be the day it slows down," a spokeswoman said. "The spike we have seen is because online-delivery dates have now passed."

The smaller number of people going out to the shops this year is perhaps explained by the growing use of internet shopping to avoid the high-street crush. The Interactive Media in Retail Group, reports that shoppers will have spent £7bn online in the run-up to Christmas, 40 per cent more than the £5bn spent in the same period last year.

Some retailers, such as HMV and Woolworths, have lost CD, book and DVD sales to the internet and have already warned of poor festive trading figures.

"Online is doing very well, it's a record year without a doubt, and that does take business away from other stores," said Richard Hyman, chairman of the retail consultancy Verdict.

The BRC admitted that retailers of items such as CDs and DVDs were vulnerable to online stores taking their business, but said figures for internet shopping overall still represented only just under 5 per cent of all retail sales for the year.

"As 95 per cent of shopping is still done conventionally, it would be a massive overstatement to say that online shopping is damaging the high street," said Mr Dodd. "Almost without exception, the biggest online retailers are also the biggest high-street retailers, so shoppers are just selecting a different route to make their purchases."

Sellers on eBay, the internet auction site, are taking advantage of people desperate to buy the latest gadgets as Christmas presents, such as the Nintendo Wii gaming console. While the consoles sold for around £180 in stores, they were on eBay for upwards of £300 yesterday.

Two festive winners in the high-street battle for business are John Lewis, which has had its best year on record, with sales up 11 per cent on last Christmas, and Marks & Spencer. The latter has said it will not start its January sale until 27 December, rather than Boxing Day, a sign that it does not have excess stock left to clear.

The resurgence of M&S this year is estimated to have taken £400m from other high-street players, according to Verdict.

For both winners and losers in this year's Christmas spree, the great leveller will come at the start of January, when spending will grind to a screeching halt, according to the financial consultant Deloitte.

"Consumers will wake up on 1 January and come back to reality with a bump as they face the poor state of their finances," said Roger Bootle, economic adviser to Deloitte.