Stores enjoyed their busiest weekend of the year as millions of shoppers finally came out to snap up cut-price deals after months of disappointing sales.
Queues formed outside some shopping centres before opening on Sunday and an estimated £1billion was spent on Saturday alone.
But experts warned retailers still faced an ‘austerity Christmas’ with profits down on last year and a likely ‘High Street bloodbath’ in January, with up to 3,000 stores facing closure.
They suggested that because so many cut-price deals had been needed to lure customers, the heavy footfall would not necessarily translate into large profits.
Around 11 million shoppers spent up to £1.5million a minute after much of the country left buying presents to the final full weekend before Christmas.
Capital Shopping Centres, which owns Glasgow’s Braehead, Gateshead’s Metrocentre, Cardiff’s St David’s, Manchester’s Trafford Centre and Lakeside in Thurrock, said its 14 sites had been ‘packed’ throughout Saturday and Sunday.
John Lewis also reported record sales of £133.1million in the week to Saturday, which was 10.6 per cent higher than a year ago and the highest weekly figure ever achieved.
Most consumers were attracted by a raft of bargains, with clothes store Jigsaw offering 30 per cent off party wear and half-price Scalextric sets available at ModelZone.
Others defied the economic downturn to splash out on expensive items, with Selfridges reporting a surge in sales in Van Cleef and Cartier diamond necklaces and luxury watches.
But despite the rammed shopping centres and High Streets, the Centre for Economics and Business Research predicted overall sales in December would be down 1.7 per cent compared with November, and 0.3 per cent lower than a year ago.
Chief executive Douglas McWilliams insisted consumer confidence was ‘shot to pieces’ amid the economic gloom. He said: ‘Retailers are in for an austerity Christmas. Those who have left their shopping late can expect bargains aplenty because retailers are working hard to shift excess stock.’
A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium said: ‘This was a make-or-break weekend for many retailers who were hoping for a big turnout after a disappointing few months.
‘It does appear that large numbers went to the shops and that this was probably the busiest shopping weekend of the year, but it is too early to say whether this has translated into significant profits.
‘Stores put on so many cut-price deals to attract consumers that profit margins will inevitably have been squeezed.’
Retail analyst Jonathan De Mello, from the CB Richard Ellis consultancy, warned up to 30,000 shop workers could lose their jobs as a swathe of small independent retailers and some major High Street names are forced to close as banks call in heavy debts.
It is the most gloomy prediction since Christmas 2008, when the UK economy was at its worst point since the start of the downturn.
Currently 15 per cent of shops in Britain are vacant. This is expected to rise by 1 per cent by the end of festive period, Mr De Mello said.
He said: ‘The country is facing a High Street bloodbath immediately after Christmas which will have a devastating impact on shopworkers and other businesses that supply shops. It is unlikely that retailers will survive the next rental quarter unscathed.’