Electronic and grocery sales provide a festive fillip

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The Independent Online

Despite signs of a gathering economic storm, or possibly because of them, the British shopper is ending 2007 with one last spree. Retail sales in the run-up to Christmas rose a seasonally-adjusted 2.4 per cent compared with 2006, according to data from MasterCard.

Christmas spending has not been as bad as some analysts had feared, despite gloomy surveys of consumer confidence, depressing headlines about the housing market and the credit crunch. A reduction in the Bank of England's base rate by a quarter point to 5.5 per cent on 6 December may have aided sentiment.

MasterCard said: "An upsurge in electronics sales helped drive Christmas spending, as did strong year-to-year gains from grocery stores and personal care retailers. Sales at clothing retailers and department stores, however, continued to lag behind the pace of the rest of retail spending." The figures cover the 31 days before Christmas Day, since when the pace may have picked up.

While the vast majority of retail outlets were shut, around 50m was spent online on Christmas Day itself, a new phenomenon. The UK's biggest shopping centre, Bluewater in Kent, rep-orted strong Boxing Day sales. A spokesman said: "Compared with Boxing Day 2006, footfall is up. Shoppers have been hitting the sales early to snatch up the bargains."

John Lewis said it expected to break the 100m-a-week sales barrier for the third week running. Half a million people converged on London's West End yesterday, and at the Trafford Centre outside Manchester 10,000 shoppers were ready for sharp-elbowed action by 9am, an hour before most of the shops opened.

In London's Oxford Street, queues formed outside Next and Marks & Spencer before early openings, while at Brent Cross, in north London, more than 1,000 people were queuing at 3.30am for the Next sale's 4am start. The House of Fraser branch at the Lakeside centre in Essex reported takings of 1,000 a minute, with visitors up a third on last year.

Richard Dodd, from the Brit-ish Retail Consortium, said: "It's clear that retailers are going to have to offer bumper sales to tempt customers in because finances are under strain this year."