Christmas is coming: holly, carols, Santa ... and Chris Evans turning on the lights

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The Independent Online
ZOE BALL, Chris Evans, Helen Mirren and All Saints hold the key to the fortunes of Britain's city centres this Christmas. The reason? They are the "switch- on factor" - the star celebrities who turn on Christmas lights and attract the public to particular streets for their present-buying outings.

The six-week run-up to Christmas is traditionally viewed as vital for the fortunes of shops and with signs of an economic downturn becoming increasingly evident, a Christmas shopping boom is even more important than usual. More cities than ever have sought sponsors and celebrities to launch the Christmas season in the hope of creating a "feel-good" environment to encourage shoppers to open their purses and wallets.

Many cities chose last Thursday, the first evening of Christmas late- night shopping, to stage eye-catching ceremonies involving the switching on of Christmas lights. At the same time, a survey was published suggesting that Britons will spend pounds 725 per head on Christmas, pounds 15 more than last year.

In Cardiff, the council has handed over the entire pounds 250,000 budget for festive celebrations to a commercial company, Cardiff Marketing. "It's been said a good 'switch-on' can improve shopping figures in the city by up to 8 per cent. We are trying to capitalise big time on the fact that Christmas shopping is enormously important to the city," said a spokeswoman.

Glasgow's Christmas season officially began on Thursday with the launch of "Shine On Glasgow with Coca-Cola", six weeks of festivities overseen by a consortium of the same name. "Glasgow has a long tradition of events put on for the populace and it's a history which began before commercial sponsorship," said a spokesman for the city council.

"But every retailer will tell you that Christmas is a crucial period for the city. The late summer and early autumn sales have not been as high as last year."

In Sunderland, the Christmas lights are switched on this Thursday and retailers are predicting a spending boom. "We make a big fuss about the switch-on and make it a huge event because people respond to it. Retailers take a large chunk of their money at Christmas," said Chris Rawlinson, city centre manager for Sunderland and a member of the North-East Chamber of Commerce.

The Meadowhall shopping centre outside Sheffield expects people to spend despite talk of recession. "Last year people spent pounds 117 a head here at Christmas and in the first week of December we had 800,000 visitors. Retailers have had a tough year but it's been so busy already we think people will still spend," said Kate Hall, marketing manager. It is a similar tale at Lakeside, in Thurrock, where visitor numbers have jumped 11 per cent since the Christmas lights went up and at The Mall at Cribbs Causeway near Bristol where numbers are thought to be 20 per cent higher than usual.

Elsewhere, the role of the celebrity in creating a feel-good factor is widely recognised. The all-female pop group All Saints switch on London's Regent Street lights this Tuesday while a day later, the actress Helen Mirren switches on the lights in nearby Bond Street. The proliferation of sponsors is a fact of life, according to Sally Humphreys, director of the Oxford Street Association, which seeks to play down the role of sponsorship in its festive display. The lights are switched on today by the Radio One DJ Zoe Ball.

The cost of putting the lights up and maintenance is pounds 120,000, half of which is met by sponsorship, this year from Bird's Eye. "We always try to keep the sponsor's presence and logo low-key and we are up-front with them about it. It means you may not get as much money," she said.

The importance of Christmas to the economy is also recognised in Plymouth, where the council has failed to secure sponsorship for its lights, which were switched on last Thursday and watched by more than 15,000 people. The failure to gather sponsorship came despite the fact the display is so popular that it was moved out of the city centre on police advice to the Hoe where there is more space for the crowds.

'TIS THE SEASON TO GET A CELEBRITY SWITCH-THROWER ...

Cardiff

City Centre

Local 12-year-old singer

Charlotte Church

Council and local

sponsors

n/a

pounds 250,000

Edinburgh

Princes Street

Actor Gerard Kelly

No sponsor

13,000 lamps using

121,000kw of electricity

pounds 100,000

Glasgow

George Square

Status Quo

Coca-Cola

4,000 bulbs, 40 strings

of pea-lights, more than a mile of flexi-lite cables

pounds 320,000 for all events

London

Regent Street

All Saints

Tango

5,000 bulbs

Cost not disclosed

London

Oxford Street

Zoe Ball

Bird's Eye

n/a

pounds 120,000

Manchester

Albert Square

Mick Hucknall

Renault

n/a

n/a

Newcastle

City Centre

Chris Evans

Fairy Liquid

Seven miles of pea-lights with two million bulbs

pounds 70,000

Plymouth

City Centre

Gladiator Scorpio

No sponsor

20,000 bulbs,

nine miles of cable

pounds 40,000

Sheffield

Meadowhall

Julie Walters

In-house

500,000 lights,

two miles of garlands

pounds 375,000

Thurrock

Lakeside Centre

Mickey Mouse

In-house

47,500 lights

pounds 300,000

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