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M&S plans flash sale as public waits later than ever to shop

Marks & Spencer has joined retailers trying to lure shoppers on to the high street before Christmas with plans for a flash sale across its stores tomorrow.

The high street stalwart has also cut prices on knitwear and its Per Una range by 30 per cent in recent days. It has, thus far avoided such flash sale days since its previous chief executive Sir Stuart Rose left, but his replacement Marc Bolland is under increasing pressure to turn around profits at its non-food business.

M&S's discounting comes as official sales figures showed customers remain cautious to splash the cash. According to the Office for National Statistics, sales volumes were up just 0.3 per cent last month after a surprise 0.7 per cent fall in October. Sales on the year were up 2 per cent.

Heavy discounting is already setting in across the high street as retailers fear being stuck with extra stock. Debenhams, H&M, House of Fraser and Currys PC World have also started offering discounts, and other stores are preparing for bumper Boxing Day sales.

Online shopping also continue to take many customers away from the high street, with the ONS revealing the internet now makes up 11.9 per cent of all sales, but overall some retailers are concerned because inflation continues to grow faster than wages. Some data suggests online shopping will top £10bn for the first time this year.

Department stores' sales meanwhile fell 3.1 per cent last month according to the ONS. They have been struggling, with John Lewis seeing a slowdown in sales and rival Debenhams hit by a series of downgrades and exposed for demanding a retrospective discount from suppliers.

The chief executives of the biggest grocers have all complained that although the economy is improving, it is still not being felt by customers because wages are rising by 1 per cent, while inflation is up by 2.1 per cent.

Tesco's chief executive Phil Clarke said recently: "Customers are less worried about the future and less worried about jobs. But they are not seeing that optimism in their wallets, or seeing their pay getting bigger."

The number of shoppers on London's Oxford Street and the surrounding area suffered particularly this week, with the number of shoppers falling 9.8 per cent over the last three days compared with the same period last year.

However, footfall did rise 7.4 per cent over the period compared with the same three days last week.

Retailers experienced a spike in the first week of December to coincide with Black Friday, which proved more popular in the UK than ever before, but shopping habits slipped as the Christmas rush is pushed later than ever before.

Retailers are holding out that this weekend will prove particularly busy especially as some workers who are paid bi-weekly will get paid today.

Early indications show customers have been heading to the shops later this year than previously, but with Christmas Day falling on a Wednesday, retailers hope this weekend will give the final extra boost needed.

Richard Lowe, head of retail and wholesale at Barclays, said: "Retailers are hoping for the proverbial late Christmas with consumers expected to make a last-minute dash for the shops this weekend.

"What discounting there is on the high street has been largely planned by retailers, so consumers will be able to bag some late bargains while stocking up on food and drink to see them through the festive period."