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Spending set to break records

Shops and stores yesterday hailed the Christmas rush as the best for nine years. Sales in some parts of the country were more than 16 per cent up on last year as fine weather brought out last-minute shoppers in their millions.

In the North, the MetroCentre in Gateshead reported business as "very very busy"; at the Meadowhall Shopping Centre near Sheffield, management said there were16.6 per cent more shoppers than last year; at the vast Lakeside Shopping Centre in Thurrock, Essex, customers were spending an average of pounds 130 - a 10 per cent increase on last year; and in London retailers expected to break all records. "We've had the best Christmas since 1987," said Martin Barnett, of the Marble Arch Retailers' Association in London's West End.

Buzz Lightyear, the computer-generated hero of the Disney film Toy Story, continued to be the most popular - and problematical - buy. With shops cleaned out of the plastic astronaut, last-minute deliveries were expected to cause chaos inside stores.

"People are continuously coming in and asking for them," said a spokeswoman for the Disney Store in London's Regent Street. "If the toys come in they will go straight on the shelves for sale. It has been frantic, shoppers have even asked if they can camp outside."

Although good for shoppers, the dry, icy weather caused a crop of minor shunts on Britain's roads, particularly in Scotland. Motoring organisations urged drivers to be cautious today in preparation for the anticipated exodus from cities to the countryside.

The AA and the RAC said problems were caused yesterday not by the volume of traffic but by the weather conditions. "It's extremely quiet for a Monday morning and it looks like loads of people are taking Christmas week off," an RAC spokeswoman said.

Around 2 million people are expected to fly out of the country during the two-week holiday period, but meteorologists said many could be in for a disappointing time. According to the London Weather Centre, the Canary Islands, Spain, North Africa and Portugal are enduring some the worst and wettest weather in years,

During the past week, parts of Spain have been flooded. Malaga had 218mm of rain, compared with its seasonal average of 62mm. Gibraltar has had a drenching with 277mm, compared with the average of 150mm. And in Morocco, Casablanca had 158mm, compared with the usual 94mm.

There were hopes last night that the weather was improving on the Continent, with drier spells and higher temperatures predicted.