Christmas shoppers flood high streets in last-minute gift hunt

Retail groups predict festive splurge of around £5bn this weekend, but say overall footfall appears down on last year

Consumers are massing for a final pre-Christmas assault on the shops, with retailers around the country reporting strong last-minute sales despite the prevailing economic gloom.

With retail groups predicting a combined festive splurge of around £5bn this weekend, the second wave was necessarily more focused given Sunday opening hours, with the big retailers limited to six hours of selling time.

Crowds gathered outside Selfridges and John Lewis on Oxford Street in London long before their designated 11.30am opening, some shoppers having forgotten about the restricted hours and others simply hoping to dash in, out and then home as quickly as possible.

Nicky Clarke had travelled to London from his home in Newark, Nottinghamshire, to buy one particular present for his girlfriend that had proved unavailable during his main Christmas shopping expedition in Lincoln on Saturday.

“I’m very focused – it’s just a question of finding this one thing, buying it and getting out,” said the 40-year-old mechanic. “By the time I realised I couldn’t get it near home it was too late to order it online. I found out Selfridges had it in stock so I came down on the train this morning.”

The scenes of exaggerated consumption can seem anomalous amid reports that twice the number of British households as last year will rely on food banks to eat this Christmas.

There are a number of explanatory factors, not least to do with London, where a retail economy already semi-detached from the rest of the UK is further boosted before Christmas by shoppers visiting from other regions.

Central London appeared less affected by the slow Christmas shopping buildup seen elsewhere, said a spokesman for New West End Company, which represents retailers in Oxford, Regent and Bond streets.

He said: “We’re quite fortunate with the tourists that come in during December, which are mainly British at this time of year. A lot of people say they didn’t come down during the summer because of the Olympics, so they’re going at Christmastime, which has worked well for us in terms of retail sales.

“We’ve had a really good couple of weeks. It’s been building since early December. We’ve been double digits up most weekends last month for footfall, against the same period last year. We report monthly on sales but we get updates every week and that’s anywhere between 2% and 10% up.”

Some other shopping destinations, such as Sheffield’s Meadowhall and Union Square in Aberdeen, reported strong sales on Saturday.

However, even if the final dash for presents does provide some cheer for shops – and the British Retail Consortium says overall footfall appears down on last year – then at least some of this could be down to a mere quirk of the calendar. Christmas Day last year fell on a Sunday, while this year there is effectively an extra weekend for people to spend their money.

Many, even in London, were nonetheless being careful. Despite the romantic largesse of his last-minute dash to the capital, Clarke said his overall spending was considerably down on last year. “I’ve bought a house, which needs a lot doing to it, so I’ve taken a month off work to get it at least partly ready for Christmas. There’s been a lot of belt-tightening all round.”

In the crowd outside John Lewis just down the road, 24-year-old Felicity Orme was, like many of her generation, looking forward to a modest Christmas. “For my friends who’ve also graduated quite recently it can be difficult, particularly with rents so high,” she said.

Orme was waiting to buy her final presents, for her mother: “She’s told me that all she wants is an umbrella and some chocolates. I’m in luck.”

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