Much of the nation has put off Christmas shopping to the last minute this year. With a full week of shopping leading up to Christmas Day and some stores open till midnight, many consumers, often flat-out at work, held off buying presents.
Others gambled on pre-Christmas sales and promotions to snap up bargains. Many shops plan to stay open as long as possible today to squeeze every possible pound from the latecomers.
John Lewis Partnership, the privately owned department store and Waitrose supermarket group, said sales for the four weeks ending today would be 18 per cent higher than last year. Brendan O'Callaghan, John Lewis's trading director, said he expected like-for-like turnover to be up 10 per cent. But retail analysts say many mid-market retailers have struggled. They single out Bhs, Burton and Dorothy Perkins. So-called "aspirational" clothes shops such as Oasis, Monsoon and Next have done better, as have chains with electronics stores such as Dixons and its PC World division.
Stockbrokers said there was heavy buying by private investors, and Barclays Stockbrokers said the most popular share was Marks & Spencer, despite its troubles, and recent reports that pre-Christmas sales have been as much as 15 per cent below levels of a year ago. The FTSE 100 index of blue-chip shares closed at a record 6,776.8, up 48.2, after reaching a peak of 6,803 just before midday. Sterling rose 0.69 cents to $1.6153.