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Christmas high-street spending is 'acceptable but not exceptional'


High-street spending in the run-up to Christmas has been “acceptable but not exceptional”, the retail industry trade association said today.

Spending over the final weekend before Christmas hit the predicted £5 billion, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), but swathes of retailers still risk going under after the festive period.

As more shoppers flock to the web rather than the shops to buy presents, high-street retailers face the threat of closure, business recovery group Begbies Traynor warned.

Almost 140 firms were in a critical condition in the fourth quarter, meaning they are on the brink of collapse, while more than 13,700 were in "significant" distress - up 35% during the three months to December 17, the Begbies Traynor report said.

And online spending was set to increase again, with many internet stores, such as Amazon, launching sales today or on Christmas morning.

But the BRC's head of media and campaigns Richard Dodd said poor accessibility on high streets, a lack of parking and weak consumer demand were to blame rather than an increase in online shopping.

But he acknowledged that some high-street retailers would "undoubtedly" fail after Christmas.

"Retail sales over the weekend have been up to expectations but expectations were relatively modest," said Mr Dodd.

"Christmas will turn out to be acceptable but not exceptional."

He went on: "There are a lot of myths around online retail. Ten per cent of overall retailing over the year comes from online shopping and actually it presents lots of opportunities for the retail sector.

"The lines are becoming increasingly blurred with things like click and collect."

But it was "troubling" that big high-street retailers such as Comet and JJB Sports had failed in the run-up to Christmas, Mr Dodd said.

"Obviously we have seen a number of retailers fail over the last few months and it is particularly troubling to see that in the run-up to Christmas.

"Often they (retailers) usually hang on until Christmas and then see where they are.

"There will be some that have done extremely well. Equally, there will be others for whom it has not stacked up and undoubtedly there will be some failures."

Last-minute bargain hunters were cashing in on internet sales today as online retailers slashed their prices earlier than the traditional Boxing Day sales.

The Marks & Spencer online sale began at noon today, with John Lewis following suit at 5pm and Currys/PC World at 7pm, according to the Daily Mail.

Online giant Amazon will start its sale on Christmas morning, a day earlier than usual.

Steve Jenkins, a spokesman for the Church of England, urged people to make time to go to church and have a family lunch on Christmas Day.

"What really matters is that people make time to go to church, to have a family Christmas lunch, to open presents with their families - and maybe spend a bit of time online spending their new Christmas vouchers," he said.

"Nothing is black and white in life and no-one is going to spend 24 hours shopping.

"This is a way for retailers to get the message out that they are open for business.

"People need variety in life."

While the January sales started early online, early figures suggested British retailers would be shunning the shops from Boxing Day and beyond.

Almost half (47%) were not planning on buying anything in the post-Christmas sales, according to research by comparison website Pricerunner.

Meanwhile, supermarkets, shopping centres and high streets up and down the country said they were crammed with people on the last few trading days before Christmas.

Sainsbury's reported its busiest ever hour in terms of customers served from midday to 1pm yesterday, while 35 branches opened at midnight and will trade until 6pm today.

One million visitors were expected in London's West End during the three-day period from Saturday to today, during which over £100 million was expected to be spent.

Some 400,000 men are predicted to flock to the area today in a rush to grab last-minute presents for their families and loved ones.

The Bluewater shopping centre in Kent was also anticipating a surge in sales today as Saturday's footfall was up 14% from the previous week.

But the Local Government Association (LGA) said confidence on the high street remained low.

Its annual Christmas survey found that 84% of town centre managers said confidence among shoppers had either not improved or worsened compared with this time last year.

The LGA suggested that the particularly cold and wet start to the winter could also be taking its toll on the number of shoppers visiting town centres.