Leading article: A hint of moderation and a touch of class

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Today or tomorrow, most of the stores that managed to resist price reductions in the weeks before Christmas will be starting their winter sales. From the season of excess eating and drinking, we pass effortlessly into the season of excess shopping. Whereas the ingredients of the festive dinner have remained remarkably constant over the years, however, shopping habits have changed to reflect every twist and turn in today's fast-moving society.

This year, the commercial season seemed to start earlier than ever: in many towns and cities, the illuminations were switched on before the last flashes of Guy Fawkes Night had faded. Sensibly, we took more notice of the weather than the lighting, and steadfastly refused to shop before we absolutely had to. The result was weeks of poor takings for the shops, slashed prices, and a last two weeks of broken records and ringing tills as the cold set in and we accepted that time was running out. That we are more attuned to the outside temperature than to the stratagems of the commercial world is somehow reassuring, as is the enduring appeal of the winter sales. It is not just that there are bargains to be had, but that enough of us have a little time and perhaps even a little money left over to indulge ourselves. That is good for business and it is good for us.

In other respects, though, shopping has changed immeasurably - and largely for the better. This year, sales over the internet are estimated to have grown by 40 per cent to a record £7bn, as much of 10 per cent of all retail spending. And the internet has introduced a whole new dimension into shopping. Not only has it eliminated some of the drudgery, but it has expanded the choice available to those who live outside big cities or are unable to visit the shops in person. While reviving the fortunes of haulage and courier companies, on-line shopping has also reintroduced the element of glamour associated with mysterious packages delivered to the door.

Probably good old-fashioned shopping will never be replaced - there is nothing like feeling a fabric, trying something on or seeing what is novel and strange at first hand. But shopping is increasingly becoming a recreation, a part of holidays and travel. Seasonal observation of the package-carrying public also suggests that an increasing number of men, especially young men, are doing it.

This year, as last, it was hard to identify an overall trend in pre-Christmas sales, save perhaps that the good tended to perform very, very well, while the less good performed very badly - and sales of luxury goods surpassed all expectations. Among the strongest performers this year, though, were three whose merchandise might have been regarded in the recent past as solid and reliable, but not especially exciting. Step forward Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's and John Lewis. Near national institutions all, they have registered an impressive revival in their fortunes that can be explained only partially by marketing. Perhaps as interest rates rise, credit-strapped Britain looks to durability rather than fashion. Or perhaps, as the price of the latest high-street fashion has fallen, more people are prepared (and able) to pay a little more for better quality.

By international standards, shopping in Britain still bears conspicuous traces of class-consciousness. But this year's success stories suggest that, even if we are not all middle class now, far more of us behave as though we were. With fripperies available for a song, sobriety and responsibility have set in: eco-friendly and organic increasingly belong to the mainstream, while value for money has made a comeback. Whether you choose the old ways of shopping or the new, happy hunting, and don't get trampled in the rush!

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