Bargain-hunters throw hungry retailers a lifeline

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The gloom that had looked set to envelop the high street appears to have been driven back by the hordes of shoppers looking for bargains both before and after Christmas.

Early indications of how retailers have fared over the Christmas period show that sales have been very strong over the weekend. John Lewis, the department store group, yesterday said Saturday was a record day for the company, with takings up 7 per cent at more than £18m. "The sales have continued to be strong since then," a spokeswoman said.

The strength of Saturday's trading is backed up by figures for the number of people shopping at the weekend. Saturday was the biggest shopping day of the year, according to SPSL, which measures "traffic" through shops. Shopper numbers on Saturday were up 2.5 per cent year on year and up 18.2 per cent week on week. This followed through to Sunday, when retail traffic was up 10.3 per cent on the same day last year.

"We had a strong run up to Christmas, with the week ending on 20 December being a record for us," John Lewis said. "The Sunday and Monday before Christmas both saw sales up 9 per cent and sales were up 5 per cent on Christmas Eve. It was a last-minute Christmas after all."

There was a 3.3 per cent rise in shopping traffic on Christmas Eve compared with last year, according to SPSL. Tim Denison, of SPSL, said. "Last year, the last-minute rush simply failed to happen. This year we did see the rush in the final few days, partly induced by selective pre-Christmas promotions. But it also seems that the last minute rush didn't totally satiate the shopping appetite. The number of shoppers in the early days of the post-Christmas sales is generally higher than last year."

Retailers in the Trafford Centre in Manchester are reporting a 25 to 30 per cent boost in sales over the past four days on the same period last year. The centre says more than 300,000 people have visited since Boxing Day.

"Sales in the run up to Christmas had been fairly flat but since then, our car parks have been full," said Andy Orr, the centre's general manager.

Brent Cross, in North London, chose to open its doors on Boxing Day for the first time in its 27-year history. "We had 100,000 people in here on Boxing Day and they have been queuing up all weekend," said Norman Black, the marketing manager at Brent Cross.

Harrods added to the sales fever yesterday, using US actress Jennifer Love Hewitt to open the doors to an expected 300,000 shoppers. A spokeswoman said the shop was "heaving" and that sales had been very strong.

The City is waiting, however, to hear more solid confirmation from the sector.

WH Smith, Matalan, Austin Reed and New Look have all issued warnings or posted downbeat trading statements in the past few months. Unusually warm weather has hit sales, and concerns that interest rates are on the rise have sparked fears that the spending boom is about to end.