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Shoppers flock to high street sales

Hundreds of thousands of shoppers pounded the high streets today to snap up post-Christmas bargains in a boost for retailers before VAT goes up in the New Year.

Shopping centres up and down the country were packed while crowds queued up from the early hours for the first full day of discounts at major retailers.

Department stores John Lewis and Harrods both launched their winter sales today after staying closed on Boxing Day.

But despite a flurry of trade over Christmas, the majority of retailers are expecting a slump in business in 2011, according to a survey.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said two-thirds of retailers responding to its Retail Prospects for 2011 survey said they expected retail sales to worsen compared with 2010.

Stephen Robertson, BRC director general, said: "Our survey shows retailers expect a difficult December to be followed by a tough 2011.

"They believe the VAT rise will contribute to higher prices and, with fears about Government cuts and the wider economy, people will be put off spending."

But he added almost half of retailers planned to create jobs and invest in their business next year.

"An encouraging proportion intends to increase investment and create jobs," Mr Robertson said.

The bad weather is also expected to have less of an impact on business than first feared.

Mr Robertson said: "Despite the combination of snow and concerns about their money and job prospects, most customers were still determined to buy things they wanted for Christmas and did seize the opportunities they had to shop."

Shoppers took advantage of milder weather today to get out into the sales, spending £10,000 a minute at Brent Cross shopping centre in north-west London, which topped yesterday's rate of £7,000 a minute.

Tom Nathan, general manager at Brent Cross, said stores were offering discounts of up to 80% to entice customers.

More than 50,000 people had passed through the doors of Bluewater shopping centre in Greenhithe, Kent, by 11am, with around 180,000 expected to visit by the end of the day.

Many had been queuing for bargains since the early hours to get into stores such as Next which opened at 5am.

Michael Holland, marketing controller for Highcross shopping centre in Leicester, said 65,000 people flocked into the centre yesterday and more than 90,000 were expected to have hit the sales by close of trading at 9pm tonight.

He said: "Highcross only opened two years ago so for us to have 65,000 on a Sunday, with limited trading hours, is exceptional."

Thousands of people also visited Capital Shopping Centres' 13 malls around the UK, filling up car parks by 11.30am.

In London, model Jerry Hall and eldest daughter Lizzy Jagger officially opened the Harrods clearance while John Lewis celebrated a 30% rise in sales for the week ending on Christmas Day, totalling £97.1 million.

The store launched its online clearance at 5pm on Christmas Eve and saw sales rise by 42% with more than four products sold every second.

The store also attracted a 25% increase in visitors online on Christmas Day with sales going up by 45%.

Maggie Porteous, head of selling operations for John Lewis, said: "Customers clearly appreciate our Never Knowingly Undersold commitment and are responding extremely well to our inspiring products, great value and exceptional service.

"We are also thrilled to have finished the pre-Christmas period on such a strong note as the slight thaw in the weather released some pent-up demand."

Jace Tyrrell, spokesman for the New West End Company covering Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street, said the shopping district was on track to reach its target of 800,000 people through the doors.

He said: "In terms of sales, we will be well over £80 million. For many retailers, today was the real Boxing Day because yesterday had restricted hours as well as the Tube strike.

"I think there's a bit of fear about the VAT rise, particularly with big ticket items like technology and luxury accessories.

"We are definitely where we should be in terms of our forecast but it has been a tough year."