Retailers cheered by rush to sales

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The Independent Online

Millions of bargain hunters thronged Britain's high streets and shopping centres yesterday as the bulk of the post-Christmas sales got under way, raising hopes of a strong end to the year for retailers.

A surge in the number of shoppers out on Boxing Day provided the first hint that this Christmas may have bettered last year for many retailers despite the weak start to the festive season. Some of the country's biggest chains, such as Debenhams, Next and HMV, are pinning their expectations on a bumper few days to clear their winter stock.

Figures from Footfall, which measures shopper traffic on high streets, showed that 7 per cent more people ventured to the Boxing Day sales than last year. SPSL, a rival outfit that also audits shopper numbers, said the increase was 1.6 per cent over last year.

And yesterday, when the sales kicked off in earnest with big names such as Marks & Spencer, Next and John Lewis all launching their clearance offers, saw millions of shoppers turn out as early as 3am in the attempt to snag a deal. In London's West End, more than 500,000 people flocked to Oxford Street, Bond Street and Regent Street, which is double the volume of a normal Saturday.

"Boxing Day was much busier this year [than last year]. The stores that opened had a very, very good day. Yesterday, after a slow start it peaked at about 4pm and was on a par with last year. Retailers were seeing a lot of technology products being bought," a spokesman for the West End Company, which represents 600 shops in the area, said.

Many shopping centres opened their doors in the middle of the night to lure in the keenest shoppers. Manchester's Arndale Centre opened at 3am, while Nottingham's Victoria Centre and south Gloucestershire's Cribbs Causeway both also opened early to allow people to scoop up bargains at Next, which started its sale at 5am.

The figures from Footfall and SPSL provide the first glimmer of hope that strong sales will compensate for poor trading in late November and early December. For all bar a couple of days leading up to Christmas shopper numbers were substantially weaker than the previous year.

A spokeswoman for Footfall said: "The big question will be how will the rise in shopper traffic translate to sales. This is just feet in the door and we need to see retailers' trading results." Analysts added the real test would be whether retailers had to give away their stock to get rid off it or if they could hold on to some profit margin. Many shops slashed their prices by up to 70 per cent.

SPSL's Tim Denison, a retail psychologist, said: "What will be fascinating, once we are into the full swing of the sales, is whether consumers are convinced that the after-Christmas sales are much different from many of the events, secret sales and special offers they experienced pre-Christmas. Or could it be that they were holding back in the final few days before Christmas waiting for the Sales proper, or could they be 'shopped out'?"