£1m per minute spent in record shopping spree

Crowds shrug off the economic doom and gloom to flock to high street stores in search of last-minute Christmas bargains

A last-minute rush in shops, on roads and at airports saw Britons battle faulty bridges, delayed deliveries and a catastrophic goose-fat shortage as the country prepared to celebrate an unseasonably mild Christmas.

Retailers spoke of a "frenzy", predominantly by men, as weeks of sales finally lured shoppers out in force to take advantage of early discounts of up to 80 per cent off some items.

Visa said it anticipated 33 million transactions yesterday, with £1.5bn changing hands – the equivalent of £1m a minute – making it the UK's busiest shopping day ever, despite the prevailing economic gloom.

The spending rush is predicted to peak between midday and 1pm today, with stores drafting in thousands of extra staff to cope with demand.

In London's West End, queues formed outside John Lewis, Hamleys and Marks & Spencer from first light. Stores expected a million shoppers through their doors again today.

Many stayed open until midnight last night to take advantage of the belated spending spree.

At Manchester's Trafford Centre, 600 buses have arrived every day this week with shoppers from all over northern England.

Bluewater shopping centre in Kent expected to have received around 750,000 customers between 20 and 23 December. Early trading did not go without hiccups. At Marks & Spencer on London's Oxford Street, there were tense scenes as supplies of goose fat ran out and customers were urged to make do with duck fat to baste their roast potatoes.

Fortnum & Mason had to offer refunds and apologise to its well-heeled customers after IT problems delayed deliveries following a 300 per cent rise in transactions in December.

The brisk trading came as a welcome relief to high streets, which have endured a lacklustre run-up to the festive season.

However, the British Retail Consortium warned that discounting could not mask the economy's deeper woes as consumers continue to pay off more on credit cards than they spend.

It was a different story online. The Interactive Media in Retail Group, an e-retail association, forecast £186m of internet purchases on Christmas Day, doubling to £368m on Boxing Day – 12 per cent up on last year.

The weather is also in stark contrast to 2010. Temperatures are expected to hit 14C on Christmas Day, just short of the 1896 record of 15.6C.

Chris Burton, a MeteoGroup forecaster, said: "We're expecting no snow at all. The only chance of snow is Friday night and Saturday morning in the mountains of Scotland. But as it warms up and rain increases, that snow will disappear."

While last year's travellers battled through ice and blizzards to make it to their destinations, there were the more traditional foes of rain and traffic jams to contend with yesterday.

The AA said it anticipated 18 million cars taking to the roads. Repair works on the Hammersmith flyover caused a major headache to Londoners seeking to leave the capital and head west on the M4.

A serious structural defect has been found and it will remain shut until at least early January, according to Transport for London.

Traffic was heavy on traditional blackspots such as the M1, A1, M25 and M5. The Highways Agency said 19 sets of roadworks and lane restrictions had been removed to ease congestion and will not resume until the new year.

Meanwhile, Gatwick reported its busiest day of the year, with 100,000 passengers. Heathrow said it had 205,700 passengers.

More than 4.25 million people are expected to travel abroad between 16 December and 3 January, compared with less than four million last year.

The most popular destinations are New York, Dubai, Dublin, Amsterdam and Paris.

In Numbers

£1m

Estimated amount British shoppers spent each minute yesterday

18m

Estimated number of cars on the road in 24 hours before Christmas Day

14C

Top temperature tomorrow – one of the warmest Christmases ever

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