City analysts said they believed that an above-average sale period will bring figures broadly back into line with earlier predictions of sales growth in December of about seven per cent over the same month last year, and justify the re-ratings of some retail shares over the past few months.
"It looks like the retailers were gearing up for a pre-Christmas rush along the lines of last year that never really materialised," said one stores analyst. "We believe that stock will shift faster over the next week or two, but it could mean that some weaker high street retailers will see their margins under pressure."
Early pedestrian traffic figures from shopping centres and large retail chains on Friday, the first day of the sales for many outlets, indicated that consumers were spending their money on the bargains, and doing more of their purchasing in out-of-town purpose built shopping centres than ever before.
The Meadowhall shopping centre near Sheffield reported a record 158,211 people coming through its doors on Friday, up from 149,000 on the same day in 1995. The Metro Centre in Gateshead, Tyneside, reported 140,000 visitors on a shopping day that started as early as 8.30am in most centres and continued until 9pm.
"Christmas started early for us, at the end of October. Business was very steady through November and the first three weeks of December," said Wilf Geldart, marketing manager of the Meadowhall centre. "Friday was a cracker, our busiest day ever. We expect a big rush this week and next."
A record 1.7m foreign visitors, spending close to pounds 200m, are expected over the holiday period.
There was evidence of a last-minute spending rush by customers in the two days leading up to Christmas. Natwest reported that its cash machines had dispensed pounds 72.5m on 23 December, a one-day record.
Barclays machines dispensed pounds 372.3m in the week before Christmas, a rise of 10 per cent. A record breaking pounds 8.8m was withdrawn across the country in the hour between 11am and noon on 23 December.