Sainsbury's opens to Church protests

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SUPERMARKET shopping finally came to Christmas Day yesterday as more than 2,000 people took advantage of experimental opening by Sainsbury's.

The chain opened two local branches, in Hammersmith, London, and Headcorn, Kent, in response, it said, to customer demand. Queues outside the Headcorn Sainsbury's Local meant the store opened 45 minutes earlier than planned.

Despite fierce opposition from Christian leaders and traditionalists, the shops experienced high demand for last-minute turkeys, fruit and vegetables, and fresh pastries.

But while the supermarket chain said it was "amazed" by demand, other retailers were pinning their hopes on the winter sales, which start this weekend, after disappointing returns before Christmas.

Debenhams, Laura Ashley and Marks and Spencer offered heavy pre-Christmas discounts, but most retailers will start sales tomorrow. This year's bargains are unlikely to be in the same league as last year's, however. The British Retail Consortium said that shops had been wary of over- purchasing after being left with large stock surpluses last year.

Further evidence emerged of a slow-down in pre-Christmas High Street spending as the John Lewis Partnership reported that its turnover in the week to December 19 was 3.6 per cent down on the same period last year.

But NatWest Bank reported that debit and credit-card spending had reached a record level of pounds 441,000 a minute during 19 December trading hours - a total of pounds 215m for the day. Cash withdrawals also peaked, as pounds 96m was taken out in a flurry of last-minute shopping.