Stores braced for Christmas rush

High street stores are expecting a mad rush to get the tills a-jingling this weekend as shoppers save their biggest spending spree to the last minute.

High street stores are expecting a mad rush to get the tills a-jingling this weekend as shoppers save their biggest spending spree to the last minute.

With Christmas Day falling on a Monday and an "extra" weekend to get all the presents bought, traders are optimistic that their shelves will be emptied over the next eight days.

But while national trade bodies report sluggish sales in the run-up so far, many of Norfolk's regional chains and the major shopping centres say that while they expect next week to be extremely busy they are already experiencing much better turnovers than on previous years.

Feedback from retailers in Chapelfield in Norwich was generally very positive with the centre getting busier as Christmas approaches.

House of Fraser general manager Rob Barton described his store's trading to date as "fantastic".

He said: "Trading levels are up, year on year, throughout the store and our leading brands such as Hugo Boss, Karen Millen and Ted Baker are in particular demand."

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His thoughts were echoed by Nick Morritt from Borders who said trade continued to be buoyant.

"The latest books from Michael Palin and Jeremy Clarkson are particularly popular and when it comes to DVDs, the Pirates of the Caribbean, March of the Penguins and Planet Earth lead the way," he said.

"We are finding the after-5pm shopping period very popular with customers and we will be extending this to 10pm during the final week before Christmas."

John Adams, trading director for Jarrolds, also said they had bucked the trend when it came to Christmas shopping. "We have been really pleased with this month's trading," he said. "We have not really noticed much of a delay in spending."

But the big rush is still expected and Bill Warnes, food trading director at Roys of Wroxham, said he thought things would really start to hot up this weekend in the market towns as well as the city centre.

"There are a lot of people around but many are still window shopping, seeing what is around and then buying over the next few days. We have to hold our nerve and not panic and slash prices because we can't afford to give things away."

Stuart McGee, store director of Palmers department store in Yarmouth, said the last week would be "crucial" to retailers as it made up a large proportion of their annual turnover. "The last three weeks have been picking up and we expect to have a good year but not spectacular," he said. "But we have a full week ahead of us so we think we will come through well."

Sophie Hallett, marketing manager at the Castle Mall, said some shops were saying that trade was slower this year but were expecting a rush once schools break up on Tuesday.

"We are extending our opening hours until 8pm every night and 10pm on Thursday because we anticipate a last minute rush," she said. "There are also more promotions in order to stimulate sales but people are thinking that with one whole week and a weekend there is still plenty of time."

Some of the major stores have already brought in big price cuts in order to get the last minute trade.

Argos, Debenhams, Halfords, Focus DIY, Superdrug and Boots are just some of the stores offering up to 50pc off many items.

However, the John Lewis department stores group announced yesterday that it achieved record sales last week, with Sunday to Saturday figures totalling £91.1m, 8.4pc ahead of this time last year and 11pc ahead of last week.

Jonathan Field, managing director of the Norwich store, said trade was particularly strong in furnishings while audio/TV/computers had its best ever week with phenomenal demand for flat screen TVs, iPods and accessories.

But one of the biggest losers is the winter clothing market thanks to the mild weather.

Trade body the British Retail Consortium (BRC) is reporting more discounting than this time last year with some of the biggest reductions at clothing stores.

Its director general Kevin Hawkins said the weather had been so mild that it was making it difficult for stores to get rid of winter stock.

And he said online retailers were once again likely to perform well this Christmas with a rash of discount vouchers being distributed over the internet.

He said: "I think there will be plenty of incentives for consumers to come out and spend money."

Tim Sleep, of retail experts Ernst & Young, said there was still time for retailers to enjoy a satisfactory festive season.

He said: "Christmas is shaping up to be a mixed one - retailers who have strong customer offers and can drive sales volumes through successful discounting, while protecting profitability, are likely to have a reasonably good festive period. Equally, those who have struggled during the year, will continue to disappoint."