Sales up in London, but rest of UK short on cheer, as retailers pin hopes on final ‘bonus’ weekend
The panic was not yet at last-helicopter-out-of-Saigon levels, but those crowding the doors of Selfridges in the West End of London before its late Sunday opening had the concentrated, wary look of people only too aware their Christmas shopping options were diminishing by the hour.
“I’m very focused – it’s just a question of finding this one thing, buying it and getting out,” said Nicky Clarke, a 40-year-old mechanic who had travelled from his home in Newark, Nottinghamshire, to locate a particular present for his girlfriend that proved unavailable during his main Christmas expedition to Lincoln on Saturday. “By the time I realised I couldn’t get it near home it was too late to order it online,” he said. “I found out Selfridges had it in stock, so I came down on the train this morning.”
It is Clarke and his last-ditch ilk who, retailers hope, could make this Christmas merely bearable rather than downright depressing, as seemed likely from uninspiring footfall and sales figures earlier in the month.
The British Retail Consortium has reported national shopper numbers “consistently down on 12 months ago”, thus pinning all the more importance on this final weekend.
Saturday at least appeared hugely busy at shopping centres from Bluewater in Kent to Union Square in Aberdeen, with forecasters predicting a £5bn spend over the two days. A number of retailers also chose to open stores from midnight in a bid to make up for any sales lost to the limited Sunday opening hours.
Early on Monday morning dozens of shoppers flocked to Marks and Spencer Simply Food in West Wickham, south London, when the store opened at midnight to stock up on last-minute goods.
Most customers had chosen to visit the store for late night shopping in a bid to avoid the massive queues expected on Christmas Eve.
Hayley Rose, 24, said: “I visited the store earlier in the day and you couldn’t move because of the number of people. It was chaos.
“I prefer to come at midnight as it’s less stressful. I would encourage other stores to open at midnight in the run up to Christmas.”
But some were left disappointed with the lack of choice available on the shelves.
Rebecca Adams, 41, said: “I would usually have come first thing in the morning on Christmas Eve but when I heard it was opening at midnight I thought it would mean I’d have a great choice as the shelves would have been filled.
“But I’m disappointed with the amount if stock on the shelves. If I’d have known it would have been like this I wouldn’t have come at this time. I would’ve saved it until the morning.”
Christmas Day last year fell on a Sunday, while this year there is in effect an extra weekend for people to spend their money.
This, and the tendency for more and more shops to offer discounts immediately before Christmas, particularly online, rather than wait for the Boxing Day sales, has pushed the seasonal dash to the shops later than ever, with many hard-up consumers holding their nerve in the hope of bargains.
If they do stay away, it may prove disastrous for the high street. A report on Monday says 140 retail groups are in a critical financial position, with a poor Christmas potentially enough to send them into insolvency.
The research, by the business recovery group Begbies Traynor, also estimates more than 13,700 retailers are in “significant” distress.
As ever, London is the exception. Sunday’s queues to even enter the Louis Vuitton concession in Selfridges may seem anomalous amid reports that twice the number of British households as last year will rely on food banks this Christmas.
Of course, much of this is down to visitors. A retail economy already semi-detached from the rest of the UK, London is further boosted at Christmas by tourists. The capital has been less affected by the slow 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 Christmas time, 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.”
But even in London many people were being careful. Despite 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 awaiting the opening of John Lewis down the road, Felicity Orme, 24, was, like many of her generation, looking forward to a modest Christmas. “For my friends who have also graduated quite recently it can be difficult, particularly with rents so high,” she said.
Orme had taken time off from her job playing the harp to guests at a five-star London hotel to buy a last-minute present for her mother, soon to arrive from the family home in Congleton, Cheshire.
“She’s told me that all she wants is an umbrella and some chocolates. I’m in luck.”