Shoppers brave the elements in search of bargains

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The Independent Online

Crowds of bargain hunters ignored the stormy weather as they continued to descend on shops, sustaining the busiest start to the seasonal sales in four years.

The severe weather warnings in northern England did not stop shoppers from braving the elements in search of cut prices. At the MetroCentre in Gateshead, the manager, Terry Atkinson, said business yesterday was "very brisk" and the shopping complex was "still extremely busy". Leeds city centre was also packed, with some shoppers forced to queue outside the Next shop.

Last week, record numbers flocked to high street shops and department stores as the sales began, and the rush has showed little sign of abating. Eager customers were taking advantage of large discounts, with some retail chains slashing as much as 70 per cent off pre-Christmas prices on products from clothes to electronic gadgets.

In London, managers at Marks and Spencer's large Marble Arch store said they had "another very busy" day on Sunday with throngs of shoppers along Oxford Street. Car parks at the Bluewater shopping mall in Kent and Lakeside in Thurrock, Essex, were said to be "full to overflowing".

The continuing sales spree comes after a record-breaking Boxing Day which analysts said was evidence of a new pattern of shopping in which consumers hold back before Christmas for a spending splurge afterwards.

Natasha Burton of the retail analysts, Footfall, said that British shoppers were displaying a formidable appetite for bargains. "The savvy shopper is now back out shopping with a vengeance. Either people were waiting for the post-Christmas sales or they have finished buying for others and are now thinking about themselves," she said.

A surge in the number of shoppers since Boxing Day has provided hope for many retailers that this Christmas may be better than last year, despite the weak start to the festive season. Some of the country's biggest chains, such as Debenhams, Next and HMV, are pinning their expectations on a bumper few days to clear their winter stock.

SPSL, a firm that monitors retail traffic, said its figures showed the number of shoppers were up by over 3 per cent on the same days in 2005. John Lewis reported a record start to its sale last week with turnover up more than 10 per cent on last year and takings of £19m in a single day.

A survey from the insurers Direct Line says more than £5.5bn will be spent by Britons in the seasonal sales. Londoners are set to spend the most, at an average of about £171 each, while it is estimated that people in Wales will spend nearer £73.