Though some DIY warehouses had started their sales on Boxing Day, yesterday saw some of the larger retailers, such as Marks and Spencer, Dixons and House of Fraser, join the fray. After a Christmas period when British shoppers had to be coaxed into the stores with pre-Christmas sales and special promotions, the bargain hunters were out in force.
Nearly 800 customers burstthrough the doors of Selfridges at 9am as the Oxford Street department store began its winter sale. At 11am, the store said that its sales figures were up on the same time last year. By lunchtime the shoe department was selling between 475 and 500 pairs of shoes an hour compared to the normal 80. Coats were selling at an average of 100 an hour and the china and glass department was mayhem. "It's heaving down there," one said.
In Cambridge, 50 shoppers queued outside Eaden Lilley department store for the start of its sale. The turn-out pleased the store manager, Robin Grape, though he conceded the overall trend was down."People don't queue like they used to," he said. "We usedto have a line right round the block. Now we tend to get a steady build-up to lunchtime rather than a stampede right at the beginning."
By early afternoon, Mr Grape was sounding cheerful, estimating sales about 10 per cent higher than last year's opening day, with half-price Christmas cards and decorations doing particularly well.
The story was mirrored across the country as shops opened for business after the short Christmas break. But though high-street tills are ringing, retailers are putting on a brave face. This year's sales are more likely to represent bargains for the shoppers than a bonanza for the stores.
The build-up to Christmas was slow, with many shops' figures only rescued by a good final week. A mild November has left clothes stores overstocked with coats, jackets and scarves. The interest-rate rise shook the already brittle consumer confidence. Many stores have stolen their own thunder by launching pre-Christmas sales.
Richard Hyman, of the retail consultancy Verdict Research, said: "I think the January sales are going to be great for the customers because there will be some huge bargains out there. But the retailers will find things pretty difficult for quite some time."
Mr Hyman believes that those retailers with good supply systems, such as Marks and Spencer, may be able to cope, but others may struggle to off-load winter stock before the delivery of spring ranges.
In addition to winterwear, the best bargains are expected to be in white goods such as fridges and freezers, furniture, and china and glass.
Liberty, the Regent Street store, said it had around 500 shoppers queuing outside the store yesterday morning, the largest for three years. A spokesman said that by lunchtime the store was packed with a healthy sprinkling of Japanese and American shoppers. However, the store admitted the British shopper has become hardened. "It is very difficult," the spokesman added. "People have less disposable income these days and they are looking for value for money all the time."
Another problem for the high street will come after the sales when shops try to raise prices. "The outlook post-January is particularly bleak," Mr Hyman said. "When you get into February and March, retailers are going to want to sell goods at full marginand that's going to be hard to achieve."
Ruth Parkhouse, of the British Retail Consortium, is more optimistic. "Margins are tight which is a problem, particularly for smaller retailers. But there is money around," she added.