We may be losing our jobs and running out of money, but yesterday all we seemed to want was a brand new Gucci handbag.
Throwing off the mood of austerity, the nation went on a spending splurge with department stores and shopping centres reporting lengthy queues and record-breaking sales.
It was thought likely that Boxing Day sales will break last year's nationwide record of £500m, representing spending of about £1m a minute, as shoppers flocked to take advantage of half-price offers and discounts of up to 90 per cent.
In London alone, half a million shoppers descended on the West End. Selfridges' landmark Oxford Street store achieved sales of nearly £1m in a single hour – its highest takings in 99 years of trading. Westfield, which is Europe's biggest city shopping centre, was flooded with 15,000 people as soon as it opened.
The Bluewater shopping centre in Kent claimed that 100,000 shoppers had passed through its doors by closing time yesterday, up by 10 per cent on last year to make its best ever Boxing Day. Lakeside in Essex also reported car park footfall was up 30 per cent on last year in the first few hours of trading. The Trafford Centre in Manchester, where one car park was full before doors opened at 8am, said it had seen more shoppers than last year while in Glasgow shoppers queued for two hours to get into the Braehead Shopping Centre.
Joseph Yu, 21, the first person in the queue of 2,000 outside Selfridges in London, had arrived in the early hours of the morning to secure his spot. "I came to London from Bristol today because I am desperate to get a Gucci handbag," he said.
It emerged he had bought the one he was after for £300, down from £600.
Another of Selfridges' early customers had already spent £3,500 by 9.08am – on six designer handbags – doing well to avoid queues where there was a two-hour wait to get into some parts of the store.
A Selfridges spokeswoman said: "It was mental when they came into the store. I've never seen anything like it. People were running into the store and grabbing bags. Some women had four of five bags in their hands. Security had to get more people down to the store to help."
Jace Tyrrell, of the New West End Company, representing more than 600 traders in Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street, said there had been 500,000 shoppers in the area, including some who started queuing at 2am.
"Are they mad? Well, it's very tempting when you've got designer handbags with 60 per cent off," he said.
Debenhams, which slashed prices by as much as 70 per cent in its "biggest-ever sale", opened at 7am to find queues of hundreds of people at stores across the country. "It's early days yet but people look like they are responding to the offers." The most popular sale items were party clothes for women, pots and pans and bed linen. John Lewis, like Marks & Spencer, began its online sales on Christmas Day and saw its busiest-ever hour between 7pm and 8pm with web traffic some 12 times higher than Christmas last year.
A survey carried out by the Halifax bank found that about 48 per cent of Britons were planning to take advantage of the sales this year, up from 39 per cent last winter. About a quarter of people said they were planning to spend more than last year with about a third saying they would spend about the same.
Anne Devlin, 69, from south Hampstead, in north-west London, said: "I want to get a new cooker and washing machine because I am having a new kitchen fitted. I was definitely not looking before Christmas, but I might go next week. "I've bought a couple of things which were quite good today. I got 70 per cent off a nice top." But many were like Tim Broughton, a 26-year-old Yorkshireman working for a publishing company in London, who said he had been avoiding buying new clothes. His parents, Hilary and Phil, were footing the £250 bill for two shirts, two jumpers and pair of jeans and some shoes from Westfield as a late Christmas present. "I dragged my folks out for a late Santa trip and they've got me the works really," he said. "It's definitely stuff I need. I've been putting it off for ages. I've not had a huge amount of cash to spend throughout the year. Things are fairly tight.
"But it's strange, it's absolutely packed here – I think people like you in the media are scaremongering." Richard Dodd, of the British Retail Consortium, said more high street stores were discounting more than previously and many had actually started their sales earlier in the month.
The overall picture for December, he said, was likely to be "not pretty" when actual retail sales figures come through in January. "Certainly the discounts have brought big numbers of shoppers out, but it remains to be seen how much people are actually spending," he said. "It was a very difficult build-up to Christmas. People finally turned out in the last few days to do some shopping, but I think when all the final sums are done, it will nevertheless turn out to have been a very poor Christmas for retailers overall."
On the high street: A selection of bargains
Norse oak veneer table and six chairs, reduced from £799 to £299;
Men's Jeff Banks overcoat, reduced from £200 to £75; John Rocha leather bomber jacket, reduced from £195 to £100
Aubusson weave hand-made carpet, reduced from £11,999 to £4,795;
Ostrich attaché case, reduced from £7,750 to £4,650; Oval walnut dining table, reduced from £2,909 to £2,450; Chiffon sleeveless cocktail dress, reduced from £499 to £249;
Gaggia ice-cream maker, reduced from £349 to £249; Prada men'stoiletries set, reduced from £63 to £31.50
Donna Karan evening dress, reduced from £2,120 to £1,270; McCartney Jeans, reduced from £240 to £120;
Prada painted lace dress, reduced from £1,190 to £710; Marc Jacobs suede bag, reduced from £820 to £410; Alexander McQueen belted crombie, reduced from £1,255 to £627.50
Samsung 50" Widescreen Plasma TV, reduced from £1,170 to £799; Canon high definition camcorder, reduced from £535 to £379
*Marks & Spencer
Collezione cashmere shawl, reduced from £149 to £69
*Fortnum & Mason
Up to 50 per cent off homewares, fashion and accessories
Alexander McQueen raincoat, reduced from £740 to £505; Stella McCartney strapless structured dress, reduced from £545 to £371.50