Hark! Cash tills ring... After one of the slowest build-ups to Christmas, shoppers brave the foul weather to snap up a bargain on 'Panic Saturday'

  • @Jamie_Merrill

The country may have been battered by squally wind and heavy rain, but shoppers descended on Britain's high streets and shopping centres yesterday as struggling retailers slashed prices in a "Panic Saturday" fire sale after one of the slowest build-ups to Christmas on record.

Large queues were reported outside retail centres from Edinburgh to Kingston in south London as buyers finished their Christmas shopping, stocked the kitchen cupboards, or, for the less organised, made a late start on their list of festive presents.

The last Saturday before Christmas is traditionally a peak shopping day, hence its "Panic" nickname, but according to Professor Joshua Bamfield, director of the Centre for Retail Research, a slow year for retailers has made it more important than ever.

Yesterday he told The Independent on Sunday: "Today really is the key shopping date before Christmas. And not because Panic Saturday is a retail or a marketing creation, but because we are seeing the prepared shopper getting their finals gifts sorted away and the frantic last-minute gift buyers hitting the shops at the same time. The result is packed shopping centres and car parks nationwide."

Shoppers flocked to stores including Debenhams, H&M, House of Fraser, Mothercare, Gap, Argos and Bhs, which are all offering substantial discounts even before the traditional Boxing Day sales. Marks & Spencer launched its first major sale since 2008 with a "Mega Day" of 30 per cent discounts on all its clothing

According to research released by Barclaycard last week, more than 15 million of us – around 31 per cent of the population – planned to shop yesterday, with a predicted average spend of £196 each.

Yesterday, Sally Eden, from the New West End Company, said: "The weather has been truly miserable, but it's not putting people off. Christmas Day falling on a Wednesday has given a bonus weekend of shopping time so people can travel home on Monday or Tuesday."

She added that the organisation, which represents 600 retailers across Bond Street, Oxford Street, and Regent Street, has seen footfall increase by 7.4 per cent compared with last week. These figures are still down on last year, however. In Manchester, Richard Paxton, the general manager of the Trafford Centre, reported "increased sales levels" in the final run-up to Christmas.

However, all retailers will need this weekend to be a success after the British Retail Consortium showed a 3.4 per cent drop in footfall, in the months of September to November, against the same period last year. This is the sharpest fall since August 2012.

One industry insider said big high-street names had "gone promotional" after a "difficult December", and that "Christmas Day falling on a Wednesday means that shoppers are leaving it later and later to pick up gifts."

Meanwhile, Jonathan Pritchard of Oriel Securities said: "Retailers are judging that stock cleared at this level of discount before Christmas may avoid deeper discounts in January. It's a gamble with only one winner – the consumer."

One guaranteed seller this weekend is beer, which could be the surprise drink of choice with Christmas dinner this year, after retail giant Tesco reported record sales of bottled ale. The chain said it has sold more than 1.5 million bottles of ale – the highest amount it has ever sold in a single week and three times as high as the same week before Christmas 2011.

Tesco put the demand down to a growing interest in ale as an accompaniment to food, and its increasing availability in pubs, as well as younger Brits switching to a tipple usually associated with older drinkers.