Last-minute shoppers call retailers' bluff on bargains

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WITH ONLY six days to go, it is high noon on the high street as shoppers face down the retailers to see who cracks first.

Consumers have been playing a waiting game - gambling that the longer they keep their cash, the more chance there is that shops will slash their prices at the last minute.

"There is a battle of wits," said Adrian Kent, managing director of the giant Bluewater shopping centre in Kent. "The British public are saying `we want to hold on to our money for a few more days and wait and see if retailers start their sales'."

Early figures from across the country suggest the shoppers will win. There has been a real shift in consumer spending this year, with consumers more confident and less likely to be seduced by premature Christmas advertising. Sales were slow in November, and it is clear that the days of saving up for a year and buying presents early have gone.

Instead, people seem happy to wait until the last minute to buy Granny's bath salts and Dad's socks if it means the chance of better bargains.

"Nowadays, people leave it late to do their Christmas shopping because they're working much harder - but also because people are hanging on and waiting for shopkeepers to lower their prices," said Ann Grain, spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium.

There are already signs that the gamble is paying off, according to the consortium. On average, the 200 most commonly bought items cost 2 per cent less now than they did in November 1997.

Shopping centres across the country have reported a sudden increase in "footfall" - the number of visitors - in the last few days. Managers at the Regent Arcade in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, yesterday proclaimed a 25 per cent increase over last year and said the high street was "wall- to-wall". But bodies do not necessarily convert into profits, according to Ms Grain. "They may be shifting lots of volume but prices are now cheaper than they've been for two years so shops are having to work twice as hard."

Before this weekend, retailers were pinning their hopes on a last-minute spree in the remaining days before Christmas, to make up the shortfall in the pounds 36bn it had been estimated shoppers would spend on presents and celebrations over the festive season.

"We think it might well stretch out over the week, with schools finishing early and many people being paid just before Christmas," said Peter Beagley, operations manager at the Braehead shopping complex on the outskirts of Glasgow.

Some stores in Oxford Street, central London, were so overcrowded yesterday that they put staff on the doors, to operate a one-in-one-out system.

Supermarkets were also dealing with a last-minute rush. "Today has just been incredible," a spokeswoman for Sainsbury's said. "Over half our customers plan to stay in on the millennium night, so lots of people are buying food and drink for parties."

Christmas came early for visitors to a store in Northampton, however, when a power cut meant all 16 tills at Sainsbury's failed for an hour during its busiest period. Customers were asked to guess the amount their bill would come to and leave the money at the checkouts.