HUNDREDS of thousands of shoppers hit the high street yesterday as major stores and retailers had a bumper day in the Christmas sales.
Queues formed well before dawn for bank holiday clearances. Customers were looking to snap up bargains ahead of New Year VAT increases amid further uncertainty over the economy.
The sales bonanza was fuelled by milder weather in some parts and store bosses were hoping to recoup some of the sales lost as the big freeze prevented people heading out during much of December.
Bosses at the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield said they were expecting one of the busiest days of the year with around 130,000 shoppers predicted to visit the centre yesterday.
Shops were open until 10pm to allow people to take full advantage of the sales. Prior to Christmas, the centre opened until midnight as snow and freezing temperatures kept people away.
Centre director Darren Pearce said yesterday's bumper crowds followed on from a "phenomenal" Boxing Day when 90,000 shoppers set tills ringing despite Sunday trading laws allowing shops to open for six hours. Early arrivals yesterday included more than 1,500 people queuing for the Next sale at 5am.
He added: "This year has certainly been one of the most eventful Christmas periods that I can recall.
"Footfall on Christmas Eve was nine per cent up when compared to last year. In the week leading up to Christmas footfall was four per cent up when compared to last year, with retail sales up eight per cent."
Brent Cross shopping centre in north-west London broke its third record in a week yesterday with shoppers spending 10,000 a minute.
Thousands of people descended on the centre after John Lewis, Fenwick and Marks and Spencer opened their doors for the first time.
Managers said it was set to be the busiest day of the year, topping Sunday when shoppers spent 7,000 a minute.
General manager Tom Nathan said many were taking advantage of sales on electrical goods ahead of the VAT hike.
"Thousands of shoppers have been holding out for the major retailers to go on sale and are hungry to bag bargains of 50 per cent and up to 80 per cent in some instances," he added.
At Harrods in London, the luxury Knightsbridge store's sale was officially launched by model Jerry Hall and her eldest daughter Lizzy Jagger, who arrived in a horse-drawn carriage.
Ms Hall said: "Harrods has been my favourite destination store since I first came to London, and there is no doubt that it's any girl's dream to be the first in line to the world's best sale."
Some of the bargains included a Herve Leger navy and purple body con dress, which was reduced from 1,350 to 675, a Laura Mercier Mini Souffle Sampler Set, which was reduced from 41 to 20, and an Ecritoire Champagne Gift Set from 1959, 1969 and 1979, reduced from 3,500 to 2,995.
Jace Tyrrell, spokesman for the New West End Company covering Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street, said the shopping district was on track to reach its target of 800,000 people through the doors.
He said: "In terms of sales, we will be well over 80m. I think there's a bit of fear about the VAT rise, particularly with big ticket items like technology and luxury accessories.
"We are definitely where we should be in terms of our forecast but it has been a tough year."
More than 50,000 people had passed through the doors of Bluewater shopping centre in Greenhithe, Kent, by 11am.
General manager Andrew Parkinson described the day as "mega Monday" with around 180,000 shoppers expected.
Popular sale items included designer fashion brands, handbags and shoes, lifestyle products such as furniture, china and linen, and electrical items such as HD and 3D televisions and laptops.
Thousands of people visited Capital Shopping Centres' 13 malls around the UK, including Manchester's Arndale centre and the Metrocentre in Gateshead, filling car parks by 11.30am.
Department store John Lewis, which open its store doors for the first time yesterday since Christmas, said online shoppers had already snapped up plenty of bargains.
It launched its online clearance at 5pm on Christmas Eve when it saw sales rise by 42 per cent with more than four products sold every second.
The most popular Christmas Day purchases included feather pillows, luxury white towels, napkin rings, LCD televisions and laptops.
Nation of bargain hunters tempted by tax deadline
More than half of Britons plan to hit the sales this year to take advantage of the last few days before the VAT rise comes into force.
Around 55 per cent of people say they plan to hunt for a post-Christmas bargain, with 22 per cent saying they would probably spend more than they did last year, according to insurer Sheilas' Wheels.
The typical shopper plans to spend just under 90 in the sales, with clothes the most popular purchase, followed by shoes, DVDs, books and CDs.
One in eight dedicated shoppers said they would even get up before it was light in order to join queues in the hope of bagging a bargain.
But 45 per cent of people admitted they felt more guilty about spending money shopping this year than they had in previous years, while 17 per cent said they had lied to family and friends about the amount they had spent in sales in the past.
Half of 1,000 people questioned also admitted that they have items in their wardrobe which they bought in the sales but have never worn.
Jacky Brown, of Sheilas' Wheels, said: "The run-up to Christmas is an expensive time of year, so it's no wonder people are so eager to rush out and spend-to-save in the January sales.
"There are amazing deals in the sales, however for every gem there's often an unused and unworn bargain that ends up throwing money down the drain."
Retailers are expected to raise prices on top of the VAT increase from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent to offset a drop in sales and rising costs.
Taxpayers also face an increase in national insurance contributions in April, further reducing spending power.
The Bank of England has also warned that inflation will remain high during 2011, when public sector employees face the first year of a two-year pay freeze. Up to half a million people in the sector are also likely to lose their jobs as Government spending cuts bite.