After the Christmas Day bells, it was the nation's cash tills that were ringing out on Boxing Day as hundreds of thousands of people thronged out-of-town shopping centres for the post-festive sales season.
While many high streets were relatively quiet, it was the big out-of-town centres such as the Metro Centre in Gateshead and Bluewater in Kent which had shoppers in search of bargains queuing early in the morning even before stores were ready to open their doors.
The shopping centres and the British Retail Federation (BRF) said the enthusiasm of buyers was a continuation of the pre-Christmas rush, which saw overall sales rise by at least 5 per cent on last year, helped by some shrewd discounting. The late surge followed a slow start to the Christmas period, as the mild weather in November and early December kept shoppers from feeling in a seasonal mood.
Retail experts said the next few days would be crucial in deciding whether shops would be able to compensate for the slow start. Richard Dodd of the BRF said shops had been making great efforts to keep customers coming because there had been predictions of a seasonal slump as customers wary of interest rate and council tax rises cut back on spending. He said: "Christmas has been much better than expected, but that may be because retailers are working hard to find exciting offers to get customers into shops.'' Natasha Burton, analyst at retail market monitors FootFall, said: "The key thing will be how they make these sales stand out to attract people."
Sales began yesterday at Selfridges, Debenhams, most House of Fraser stores, Reiss, Woolworths, Currys and Next in Scotland. Today will see sales beginning at Marks & Spencer, Next and John Lewis, apart from the Trafford Centre store in Manchester, which opened yesterday. The Harrods sale begins tomorrow.
On the internet, Comet, Marks &Spencer and PC World began reducing prices on Christmas Day, with John Lewis's online's sale starting yesterday.
Gareth Thomas, director of retail operations at John Lewis, said he was optimistic that the chain's "festive momentum" would carry it through the sale season. The chain hit record sales last week, with sales up 16.3 per cent on the previous week and slightly above the same period last year.
Allthough high streets in many towns were quiet, the New West End company, which represents traders on Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street in central London, said some stores were expecting to have their busiest day of the year yesterday. At Selfridges in Oxford Street, 23-year-old David Mackey and his girlfriend, Victoria, who travelled from Cardiff, had been waiting since 7am for the Gucci concession to open, hoping to snap up handbags and boots. The store said about 2,000 people were in the queue by opening time.
In Birmingham, shoppers queued for three hours before the Bullring shopping centre opened and 27,500 people passed through the doors during the first hour; the total number of visitors was expected to be up by about 3.5 per cent on last year. At The Mall centre near Bristol most car parks were full by mid-morning. The Trafford Centre in Manchester drew an estimated 130,000 customers, a Boxing Day record.
The Government used the day as an opportunity to plug its Get On literacy and numeracy campaign, warning that almost 15 million adults lacked the skills expected of a typical 11-year-old and were therefore unable to work out precisely what a discount or sale price might mean.
The biggest shop, Selfridges, opened at 8am to meet demand. About 27,500 people passed through the centre, which has 160 shops, during the first hour. The number of visitors was up 3.5 per cent on Boxing Day last year.
Although most shops did not open until 10am, coffee bars were full by 7.30am. House of Fraser had more than 300 people queuing before it opened. About 75,000 people passed through. Some said it was a "warm-up" for a busier day today.
Thousands were already queuing when most outlets at the 330-shop centre opened at 10am. Debenhams opened at 8am to cope with crowds. Barry Turnbull, the general manager said: "A Boxing Day bonanza is the best way to describe it. We are very happy. We are looking better than last year."
Trafford Centre, Manchester
At the 235-shop centre, shoppers queued from 5am. It was due to be visited by 130,000 people, a record for the day. A spokeswoman, Lucy Sharp, said: "It has been a slower start to the Christmas period, but once started people have definitely had money to spend - and have been spending a terrific amount."
Brent Cross, London
More than 100,000 people were expected to visit the 120-shop mall yesterday, with today forecast to be even busier. Tom Nathan, the general manager said: "Wednesday will be even bigger, partly because we have a longer trading day, but also as major retailers that traditionally open on 27 December start sales."
Boxing Day is not a public holiday in Scotland, but the centre said numbers were up on last year. Shoppers were attracted by the sale at Next, which began at 7am and prompted long queues beforehand, and food shopping at Sainsbury's, which was closed south of the border.