Shopping: Elbows out, now is the time to buy

The sales are on with a vengeance but economic gloom may deter many
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The Independent Online
SHOPPERS GAINED the upper hand in their now-traditional seasonal battle with high-street stores as the new year sales got under way yesterday. Record numbers flocked to shopping centres as retailers offered reductions of up to 80 per cent.

In recent years shops have had to cut their prices more and more sharply every January to tempt shoppers. Consumers have learnt that prices rise in December and bargains arrive after Christmas.

In January 1998 the drop in the price of clothing and footwear was the biggest since the war, at 6.6 per cent. The fall in the price of big-ticket household goods such as fridges and furniture was 3.9 per cent, the biggest since records began in 1956.

The scale of price cuts in clothes and consumer electronics has grown almost every year since the late Eighties, and retail analysts have noted the increasing success of consumers' guerrilla tactics. Last year, spending boomed in January, encouraged by the big price cuts.

However, this year there were fears that retailers may have less surplus stock and therefore the bargains might not be as great. Last year over- optimism about Christmas shopping left them with huge amounts of unsold goods. But the early signs yesterday were that bargains were plentiful.

Not only have retailers cut back on their stocks this year, they have also been increasing prices every December and February to make up, at least partly, for the price cuts in January. Lakeside shopping centre in Essex, one of the biggest in the UK with 320 outlets, saw more customers than any previous Sunday when it openedafter Christmas.

Richard Belt, the general manager, said: "The level of discounting is higher than ever; 50 per cent is the average and some shops are offering between 70 and 80 per cent off."

He added: "This has been one of the worst retail years in memory. The weather has been terrible and has left retailers with large stocks to clear before bringing in their spring merchandise."

Ten people had fainted in Next, Lakeside by lunchtime yesterday - one probably the wife of the customer who spent pounds 1,000 in the men's department. The week's target for Next is pounds 1m and it was expected that about pounds 350,000 was taken in the first day of the sale.

Marks & Spencer, which had suffered a steep decline in pre-Christmas spending, is also offering discounts in all departments.

Going Places, the travel chain, said it was offering "huge" discounts for early summer holiday bookings through its 700 high-street shops. Bookings so far were 4 per cent ahead of last year.

At the Meadowhall outside Sheffield, eager shoppers were queuing in the rain from 5am yesterday. The scene was similar at the MetroCentre in Gateshead, according to the manager, John Bell. There were record numbers on Sunday and he was expecting at least 130,000 yesterday.

He added: "Last week's figures were pretty disappointing at the start of the week, but I think that is because the public are no longer fooled by the whole Christmas thing. They hold on to their money or give gift vouchers so that they can take advantage of the sales."

Ann Grain, speaking for the British Retail Consortium, said: "We hope this December follows last year's pattern. Last year it was very slow until the 21st and then completely turned around."

But the battle is not going all the consumers' way. Ms Grain admitted: "People might be a bit disappointed because retailers had their fingers burnt last year." There would be bargains, she said, but the sales were unlikely to last as long.

Consumer confidence has also been dented by the gloomier economic outlook. That, too, could hold back the scale of the nation's annual bargain-hunting spree.

Barclays Bank is predicting a steady housing market in 1999. The bank's forecast, issued yesterday, included mortgage rates falling to 6 per cent from the present 7.5 per cent and a boom in capped-rate mortgages as borrowers tried to lock into lower rates for the long term. House prices would continue to rise at just above the rate of retail inflation.