Retailers are desperately hoping for a last-minute reprieve from dismal Christmas sales figures, amid fears that what should be the busiest shopping day of the year will be ruined by miserable weather and planned protests.
Businesses have described the next 48 hours as a "make or break" time, after weeks of intensive price cutting that has had limited success.
Of major concern is the weather and plans by the anti-tax avoidance group UK Uncut to target high street stores in a day of demonstrations. A statement released through the group's website said its followers had voted to shut down Vodafone stores across Britain. The telephone company has become a lightning rod for protest over corporate tax relief, after HMRC agreed to waive a £7bn bill.
There are also expected to be protests outside clothing stores such as Topshop and Burton, which are part of Sir Philip Green's Arcadia group.
"For many retailers this is the make or break weekend, especially for the fashion and technology sectors," said Jace Tyrrell from the New West End Company, the trade body that represents Britain's two busiest shopping thoroughfares, London's Oxford Street and Regent Street. The weather plays a hugely important role in consumer spending and retailers will be watching the forecast closely."
Today is expected to be the busiest day of shopping before Christmas, with millions of consumers hoping to benefit from last-minute deals. According to a report published yesterday by the online price comparison site Kelkoo, more than 11 million shoppers are expected to spend £1bn today alone – the equivalent of £1.5m ringing through the tills every minute.
While the figures may sound impressive, they will do little to reassure the high street, which has seen poor growth and limited spending from consumers reluctant to behave extravagantly.
Despite intensive price cutting, which began as early as November, retail sales in the UK are not expected to be any better than the £36.2bn spent this time last year, according to auditors Deloitte.
Unless there is a sharp improvement in the final week before Christmas, it will be the first time that no growth has been recorded over the holiday season since 2008 at the height of the credit crunch. Retailers in London's West End insist profits are up between 3 and 5 per cent on last year, but that is partly down to very heavy snow last December.
Outside the capital the picture is much more mixed. Cities with large populations of public sector workers – such as in Newcastle and Liverpool – have seen less confident consumer spending.
North of the border, according to the Scottish Retail Consortium, sales are down 1.3 per cent on last year, with non-food items down 3.3 per cent.
It is the worst fall Scotland's high streets have seen since 1996, when the survey started. "Retailers in Scotland have had an exceptionally tough year, worse than the UK as a whole," said Ian Shearer of the Scottish Retail Consortium. "Consumer confidence is currently lower in Scotland than the UK average and householders are more worried about jobs and the state of their personal finances."
After 24 hours of flurries that blanketed some parts of the country in snow, the forecast for the weekend looks positive, with most places expected to be dry and bright but bitterly cold.