Bargain hunters hit the shops

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The Independent Online

Two of the UK's biggest retailers opened their stores to post-Christmas bargain hunters today as figures showed a big rise in shoppers on the streets.

Rivals John Lewis and Marks & Spencer stayed shut on Boxing Day, but joined the high-street frenzy today after launching their online sales a few days earlier.

Millions of shoppers are expected to flock to cities and shopping centres up and down the country in a sign of improved confidence from a year earlier, in the worst depths of the recession. Many will also bring forward spending to beat the VAT hike on January 1.

Initial footfall figures for Boxing Day from market data firm Experian showed an big 18.5% jump in the number of shoppers compared with last year.

"Centres or retailers that didn't open this Boxing Day may be feeling that they have lost out on their share of the consumers' wallet," Experian's senior analyst Anita Sharma Manan said.

But she added: "Retailers will have been elated at this year's performance, however it remains to be seen if the takings will be enough this year to see them through this difficult period to the next quarter.

"With more shopping centres yet to open and key retailers launching their 'official' post-Christmas sales today there is every expectation that the remainder of the weekend could be busy."

Yesterday Selfridges enjoyed its best Boxing Day yet with a 10% rise on last year, and by 1pm menswear in the London store had taken more than £1 million.

The Oxford Street branch attracted around 150,000 shoppers during the day - and thousands more at the branches in Manchester and Birmingham - with similar numbers expected today.

Stewards were employed to keep crowds under control in London, with a separate queue for customers hoping to buy Gucci at discount prices.

Staff at Lakeside shopping centre in Essex said drivers arrived as early as 5am yesterday to get to its branch of Next which opened an hour later.

More than 125,000 shoppers also flooded into Bluewater Shopping Centre in Greenhithe, Kent, on the first of the three busiest days of the year for the mall.

The 12,000 car parking spaces at the Meadowhall shopping centre, near Sheffield, were virtually full by 11am with visitor numbers expected to top 100,000.

And the Bullring in Birmingham saw thousands of shoppers queuing outside from 4am, with more than 9,000 passing through in the following five hours.

Jace Tyrrell of the New West End Company, which represents retailers on Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street, said retailers were expecting 1.2 million shoppers to spend around £120 million in a three-day frenzy.

In Milton Keynes today 15,000 shoppers had gathered at thecentre:mk, which has more than 230 stores, before doors opened at 11am. Over 1,000 queued outside John Lewis and M&S before trading began.

Centre director Robert Goodman said: "The early response to the post-Christmas sales has been tremendous.

"Initial reports are that whilst sales items are flying off the shelves, full-price merchandise is also selling surprisingly well."

Meanwhile John Lewis said a strong start to its online sales "boded well" for its high street stores.

The online clearance - which began at 6pm on Christmas Eve - enjoyed a record first three days with sales up 23% on last year.

Boxing Day saw the highest-ever number of visits to the site, peaking between 11am and 12pm, while orders were placed every 10 seconds on Christmas Day. Pillows towels, LCD televisions and laptops were among the best sellers, John Lewis said.

A Marks & Spencer spokeswoman added that around 2,500 people flooded into its flagship Marble Arch store in central London within the first 20 minutes of trading - with some shoppers waiting since 7am to grab a bargain.