Shoppers flock to the 'January' sales: Rhys Williams finds glad tidings for retailers as the traditional hunt for bargains begins

THE CROWD control barriers that lined Oxford Street yesterday suggested English football on a night out in Europe. But the way the London shoppers tackled that December ritual known as the January sales contained all the ferocity of a night in playing Scrabble.

John Anderson, Selfridges commissionaire, cast his expert eye up and down the road: 'Aye, there's a lot of money changing hands today.' Retailers across the country agreed. House of Fraser is predicting a 10-20 per cent increase on last year's first-day sales. Debenhams reported queues of more than 700 outside its central London store at opening time, while Lunn Poly expected sales of holidays to reach 20,000, nearly double the figure for the same day last year.

The men's shoes department at Selfridges was virtually gridlocked (a cut through the Timberland display being the only viable route to the down escalator and the calm of sunglasses and drinks), but angry words and elbows - as big a part of the sales furniture as broken china - were absent.

The patter of tiny sales talk was allowed to carry on uninterrupted. 'That's much better, sir,' an assistant assured a man trying on a Giorgio Armani jacket (down from pounds 399 to pounds 315). 'Better on me or on anyone who tries it on?' the man wondered. 'Oh no, sir, better on you, of course.' Sold. The perfect fit sacrificed for the right price.

Janet Taylor, an office worker from Finsbury Park in north London, had spent two hours in the store and still had not bought anything. 'I don't know why I'm here really. I spent all my money on Christmas.'

The bouncers that Next had employed to regulate the flow of shoppers into its Oxford Street branch seemed a bit much. Although their manner was less of the standard 'You can't come in here with jeans on, mate' and rather more 'Blimey, look at the state of you, get inside and spend some money'.

Prepared to queue (for 10 minutes anyway) and eager to spend were two newcomers to the 'January' sales - Sally White and Ann Jones, both up for the day from Haywards Heath in West Sussex. 'We came up for the Early Birds bargains at Debenhams. We've bought some sweaters.' And what were they looking for in Next? 'Oh, more sweaters.'

Jean Chitty, of Maidenhead in Berkshire, and Marion Eames, of Sunbury, Surrey, stood outside Marks & Spencer at Marble Arch and sported the latest in shopping bag chic - several egg-yolk yellow numbers (Selfridges again) and a traffic-light green model from M & S. 'This is my first time,' Ms Eames said, fresh from buying a seascape for pounds 99 (down from pounds 179). 'But Jean's a regular.'

Cue Ms Chitty, proud owner of some pink bath towels: 'Oh yes, it's just as busy as in previous years. Although there wasn't a jazz band outside to entertain the queues this year.' And Ms Eames: 'We'd have done a little turn, if they'd asked us.'

However, the season of goodwill and civility went only just so far. In Bristol, Marik Stalinski spent the night in his car to make sure he was first in line for a Chinese cabinet at Maples, Waring and Gillow. Sadly he fell asleep and woke up to find that dozens of people had barged in front of him.

Clarke holds key, page 9

(Photographs omitted)

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