Joy at last for retailers as shoppers find festive spirit

After weeks of grim predictions, the British consumer has taken to the shops with gusto

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The Independent Online

Retailers have announced record sales during the busiest shopping period of the year, with the public defying austerity to splash out on Christmas presents.

Millions of shoppers went online and hit the stores at the weekend as retailers responded to forecasts of a drop in sales over the Christmas period by slashing prices in "panic sales". Store chains including Marks & Spencer, French Connection and Barratts were offering discounts of up to 50 per cent.

The public appears to have taken the bait, with more than 1.5 million shoppers flooding to London's West End, spending £180m on Saturday, according to the New West End Company, which represents 600 traders in the capital. Selfridges, on Oxford Street, said customers were queuing to get in when the store opened at 11.30am, with headphones, iPads, Kindles, candles and chocolates among the most popular items.

John Lewis reported sales totalling £123.5m last week – the most the department store chain has ever taken in a seven-day period. Women's fashions and coffee machines were among the most popular items.

Richard Dickinson, the chief executive of the New West End Company, said: "Christmas has really gone off with a bang this weekend. Based on past experience we were confident that despite the slow start to seasonal spending, shoppers would get the tills ringing over the next two weeks but this weekend has exceeded expectations."

Capital Shopping Centres, which operates 14 malls including the Trafford Centre in Manchester, Lakeside in Thurrock, and St David's in Cardiff, reported that customers had been queuing since 9am in some places and car parks were almost full by midday.

Waitrose also reported a huge demand for its premium Free Range Plumpie Turkey over the last week, with a 66 per cent rise in orders compared with the same period last year. Waitrose said orders were also up for other festive centrepieces, including its rack of venison, dressed crab and lobster.

The story was even better for online retailers, which saw 84.6 million visits to their sites on 5 December, or "Cyber Monday" – the busiest online shopping day of the year.

The figure reveals a dramatic increase in the number of people going online to do their Christmas shopping, from last year's figure of 72 million visits., which accounted for 10 per cent of those visits, received orders for more than 3 million items, beating its record of 2.3 million sales set last year. The company's new Kindle e-book reader was the best selling item, with the final film in the Harry Potter series also flying off the shelves. Online sales at John Lewis topped the chain's previous record by 20 per cent, hitting a total of £28.8m.

But while the news provides welcome relief for the country's beleaguered high streets, a poll published today suggests that Britons will be taking on more debt to pay for it all. The poll, conducted by YouGov on behalf of the banking platform Intelligent Environments, found that 31 per cent of Britons will get through the festive period by taking out loans or borrowing money from friends and family.