Late surge boosts retailers' hopes for a happy Christmas

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The Independent Online

Retailers and shopping centres across the country have seen a late surge in Christmas shopping on one of the busiest weekends of the year.

Millions of shoppers packed high streets and shopping centres in a last-minute rush to buy gifts. Retailers said many people were leaving things to the last minute in the hope of getting better deals. The bumper weekend kicked off the last week before Christmas, which could prove crucial to sales.

Peter Bellhouse, the duty manager at Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, said yesterday: "The last two days have been very busy. Shops opened at 11am today, but people turned up earlier and formed queues outside shops.

"People have left things to the last minute to see whether shops go into sale early. They have been holding off and there is only a week left, so everybody needs to get their shopping done."

Half a million people flocked to Oxford Street on Saturday - up from a normal volume of about 300,000 people - when traffic was banned between Marble Arch and Oxford Circus between 10am and 6pm. In a desperate attempt to generate more spending, retailers tried to lure shoppers with carol singers, street entertainers and steel bands.

After a torrid year for retailers, there is mounting evidence that Christmas may not be the washout many have feared. Official figures for November published last week showed that retail sales rose at their strongest pace in five months. It was the fourth consecutive month that sales have increased, with much of the 0.7 per cent growth down to a strong rebound in clothing sales after the weather finally turned colder.

Once again, retailers have had to cut prices to tempt shoppers. Store giants including Debenhams, Currys, Dixons, Argos and Carphone Warehouse launched special promotions this weekend and many shops stayed open late.

The New West End Company, a trade body which manages Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street and represents 600 retailers, said that £1bn had been spent by shoppers in the West End in the past six weeks, with 40 million visitors flocking to the area. A spokesman said: "Retailers are saying their figures are up year on year. Selfridges traded their best day ever two weeks ago."One of the winners of this year's festive season is John Lewis Partnership, which has seen sales rise steadily over the past eight weeks and hit a new record last week. Sales were strong across the country from Aberdeen to Southampton and topped £85.1m, up 8 per cent on a year ago. Other festive winners are expected to include Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury, New Look, Next and Primark.

Richard Hyman, the chairman of the retail research group Verdict, said: "The evidence suggests that Christmas has come late this year, but it has been coming later every year. Shoppers wait for retailers to get desperate and lower their prices, it's a well-established cycle."

How shopping numbers add up

* Shopper numbers were down 1.3 per cent last week from a year ago, less than the declines of 3 per cent and 4.2 per cent seen in the previous two weeks, and numbers could end up this week.

* Seventy-two per cent of shoppers will not complete their Christmas shopping until this week, with 14 per cent waiting as late as Christmas Eve.

* Most shoppers expect to spend between £200 and £500 on gifts this year, though 16 per cent will spend up to £1,000.

* Over the last six weeks, £1bn has been spent in London's West End, which attracted 40 million visitors.

* Best-selling gifts this year include Roboraptor and the Dr Who Talking Dalek toys, Sudoku, iPods, flatscreen TVs and MP3 players.

Sources: New West End Company, SPSL, KPMG