Nordics come to gape and pillage

Newcastle is selling Christmas trees, and lots more, to Norwegians, writes Colin Blackstock
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The Independent Online
Newcastle has had its fair share of invaders over the years, first the plundering Vikings and then the marauding Scots. Now it faces another onslaught of Scandinavians and Scots - though this time they've come to do their Christmas shopping.

The festive pilgrimage reflects a growing trend among Christmas shoppers to travel long distances. People in Belfast, for instance, venture to Dublin in search of bargains, while the Welsh cross the border from Cardiff to Bristol, and the southern English head for the hypermarkets of the Pas de Calais. The Gateshead MetroCentre, Europe's biggest indoor shopping mall, attracts visitors from all over the country as well as northern Europe for the most important shopping trips of the year.

Last Saturday more than 700 Scandinavians arrived at MetroCentre, while out of 556 coaches, around a third were from Scotland. Karen Carr, assistant marketing manager, believes people come because the Centre offers them such a variety of retailers under one roof. She believes the festive atmosphere is also a factor with pounds 200,000 spent on decorations this year.

"I think people come to the MetroCentre because they don't have to worry about the weather," she said, "and most people will spend the night or weekend at a hotel. They can have a nice time doing their Christmas shopping and then go out for the evening afterwards."

The MetroCentre appears to be growing in popularity with north Europeans. "We get people from all over the country coming to the MetroCentre," said Ms Carr. "This year is the first time a Scandinavian shipping company, which usually stopped sailings in October, has continued to operate through the winter."

The big draws for the seaborne shoppers are Argos for its toys, Marks and Spencer for clothing (even the Nordics buy their undies there) and Boots for cosmetics. Last year, in what can only be described as taking coals to Newcastle (or spruces to Scandinavia), Boots even managed to sell a false Christmas tree to a Norwegian.

Alcohol is also a popular bulk buy, although not so much with the Scots, who won't find it as cheap as the foreign shoppers accustomed to paying higher prices for their booze.

Low prices are also the lure at the other end of the country as day- trippers head to France. Nick Stevens, of P&O Ferries, reports a noticeable rise in the numbers using the cross-Channel routes in the run-up to Christmas, with traffic increasing by about 10 per cent on last year.

"We usually get a short lull after the summer, then from mid-November we're full-on with most sailings," he said. "In the main that's day trips with cars although some people do take short breaks, but most of them are stocking up for the holidays."

A strong pound against the French franc encourages the shopping trips, and the flow of traffic contrasts with the Northeast in that about 70 per cent of the cross-Channel shoppers are on their outward journey from England, while in Newcastle it is a minority of British shoppers who travel abroad for their Christmas goodies.

Long-distance shopping expeditions are not confined to thesouth of England. For years, Irish visitors would travel north of the border to shop in Belfast in the large chain-stores such as Argos, Dixons and Debenhams. However, this trend is reversing with the opening of these multiples in Dublin and the pound's strength against the Irish punt.

John Stringer, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, said this shift did not seem to be having any adverse effect on shops in Belfast, although some of the smaller border towns such as Newry and Enniskillen were concerned about falling business.

"The trend for shoppers to travel from Northern Ireland to the South is continuing this year," he said, "although business is picking up nicely in Belfast. Everyone feels quite good about it and pleased as to how things are developing for Christmas as a considerable number of people are still travelling north for a day's shopping."

Bristol's largest shopping centre, The Galleries, reports an increasing number of visitors from Wales and the surrounding areas. Their research has shown that shoppers come from other large towns with shopping centres, such as Cardiff, Swindon and Taunton, and Galleries manager Derek Oldfield puts this down to the festive atmosphere:"Shoppers love to see traditional decorations, a wonderland grotto, festive music and sparkling window displays."

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