Traffic warnings and all-night queues as 120,000 bargain-hunters hit Bluewater

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The Independent Online
CHRISTMAS ARRIVED late at Britain's biggest shopping centre yesterday, beginning with the woman who started the queue outside Next. She got there at 3.30am, but was only the first of an estimated 120,000 people who passed through the doors of Bluewater, and brought a sigh of relief from retailers who had wondered whether the British public had turned into Scrooges.

To some extent, we have: increasingly, we spend less before Christmas than after it.

"When I got here at 5am there were 100 people queuing," said a Next assistant, struggling by midday to control the flow of people trying to get into the store - one of 320 shops, restaurants and cinemas in the 240-acre complex built in a former quarry that hides it from the nearby A2 and M25, close to Dartford, Kent.

"It's much busier than before Christmas," said Claire, an assistant at the clothing chain River Island. "When I got in at 11.30 today for my shift I couldn't see the other end of the store."

Road signs were blinking miles away, advising motorists of alternative routes to the complex. They were the first warning of the crowds. This continued with queues to get into the car parks, which were quickly so full that the coach parks were used instead. "I was out there myself helping to direct traffic," said David Robinson, Bluewater's marketing manager. "It's certainly our busiest day since we opened in March."

But why did people come yesterday? The answers seem to be that the public has got wise to retailers' tendency to up their prices ahead of Christmas, only to drop them immediately after in sales; that they had been too busy for the rest of the month; and that the Boxing Day holiday is the perfect antidote to the hurried, short-stocked, overpriced, bad-tempered hell that is Christmas shopping.

For people such as Keith McDonald, who had ferried his wife, daughter and grandchildren from Essex, passing the Lakeside shopping centre on the way, it was ideal. "Lakeside's boring," he said. "This is the first chance my daughter has had to get some shopping time."

For Asil and Mahmud Patel, who work as plumbers' merchants in Stoke Newington, north London, the reasons were similar. "We work six days a week,"said Asil. "There's plenty of work, but we decided to refuse it today so we could come here."

The bags full of clothes hooked over their children's pushchairs bore testament to hundreds of pounds not spent in the run-up to Christmas.