SUPERMARKET chain Asda said customers planned ahead to beat bad weather and spread the cost of Christmas, making the two-week run-up to December 25 busier than usual.
The Leeds-based group said it saw a record four million customers on December 23, helping it to achieve a "good" Christmas performance.
The group, part of the world's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart, also opened 105 of its stores on Boxing Day, attracting half a million shoppers.
It said customers learned from last year's bad weather by stocking up on food and drink early. Asda said many chose to split their "big shop" into two trips.
"The combination of bad weather and people working hard to budget this year has meant the Christmas shop has been spread across a longer period of time, with shoppers making a couple of trips to stock up for the festive season," said Andy Clarke, Asda president and chief executive.
The group said customers planned for the poor weather by filling trolleys with longer life and frozen items two weeks before the Christmas day, returning for fresh produce and vegetables closer to the day.
Eleven of its stores recorded sales of over 7m in the fortnight leading up to Christmas, compared with nine in 2009. Boldon in Tyne and Wear and Havant in Hampshire both took more than 8m. Other top-performing stores were Queensferry, Edinburgh and Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.
Asda, the UK's second-biggest supermarket chain with 384 stores, did not provide total or like-for-like sales figures for the festive period.
The group faces headwinds in 2011 from rising commodity and energy prices, plus the January VAT increase from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent.
Earlier this year, Mr Clarke admitted that Asda had lost focus on a number of areas, which was affecting its performance. But in December its market share stabilised for the first time in 2010, at 17 per cent.
Mr Clarke recently told the Yorkshire Post Asda would have to raise some prices when the VAT increase hits. But yesterday he insisted customers should not notice the difference.
"We're keeping things simple at as always at Asda," he said. "The price customers see on the shelf in January will be the price they'll pay at the till and we've been working hard behind the scenes to make sure customers hardly notice a thing.
"The good news is that our Asda price guarantee means our shoppers don't have to worry about the VAT rise – if they find a basket cheaper at one of our competitors, we'll refund the difference."
Asda introduced a number of measures this month in an attempt to help shoppers and boost sales. This included assigning staff to monitor the check-out queues and flag up available tills to customers. Other staff were named Go-Getters with the job of running to fetch items for forgetful customers at the checkouts.
In November, Asda reported a return to sales growth for the third quarter of its financial year as it benefited from initiatives such as price-matching and the revamp of the supermarket's upmarket Extra Special range.
The group also re-vamped its mid-tier Chosen by You own brand label in September with a 100m relaunch after admitting the previous range had become "invisible".
Yesterday Asda said products from its Chosen by You and Extra Special ranges proved popular with customers. Sales of the Wyke Farm Cheddar increased tenfold and more than 50,000 Extra Special cheeseboards were bought.
The supermarket sold 25 per cent more sprouts this year than 2009, 1m of Extra Special pate and more than 2.5m mince pies.
Best-sellers on Boxing Day purchase included batteries, as customers powered new toys.
The supermarket said the heavy snowfall did not prevent it delivering more online grocery baskets than ever before in the run up to Christmas, making more than 250,000 deliveries.
Its drivers were kitted with snow shovels and snow shoes, and where customers could not be reached, local car parks were used as meeting points for delivery.
Asda also initiated Operation Snowflake, to keep its car parks clear and shelves stocked. It used snow ploughs more than 1,600 times as well as almost 4.5m tonnes of salt to melt ice.
"Our shoppers weren't the only ones to learn the lessons of last year, and we have worked incredibly hard this year to make sure our deliveries got through and customers could reach our stores, whatever the British weather threw at them," said Mr Clarke.
Shoppers flock to lewis sale
HIGH street bellwether John Lewis smashed its record for a single day's trading by more than 30 per cent as shoppers flocked to its clearance sale.
The group said sales between Monday and Wednesday were up 26.2 per cent on a year ago. Monday saw sales of 27.8m, up 54 per cent on the same day last year.
Monday's sales were up more than 30 per cent on its previous biggest-ever day, December 27, 2008.
Sales director Nat Wakely said: "There has been an overwhelmingly positive response."