Forest of sale signs light up high streets as warm weather, Black Friday and move to online sales prompt steep high street discounts to attract shoppers.
Christmas shoppers have been snapping up festive bargains, as retailers slashed prices to cope with tough trading conditions.
At Oxford Circus on Sunday, throngs of consumers exiting the tube station to the sound of steel drums playing Jingle Bells, were greeted by a forest of sale signs and discount tags.
“I’m surprised by how quiet it is. It’s even a lot quieter than it is in summer. I’ve enjoyed shopping today,” said Gavin Hodges, 32, holding a bag with a roll of wrapping paper sticking out. “I bought one thing for myself and one thing for my husband.”
Hodges said he had a similar experience on Saturday, at the vast Westfield shopping centre at White City, west London. “The 50% sales – it’s started,” he said.
That chimes with Andy Lyon, retail expert at consultancy PWC, who said retailers in Nottingham, Leicester and Birmingham had reported a “relatively quiet” weekend, as shoppers increasingly rely on the internet to do their Christmas shopping, instead of queuing up in stores.
“I don’t think the big rush has happened. Online has gone from strength to strength, and that’s the real winner this Christmas,” he said. PWC expects online sales in 2015 to be up 20% on last year.
“From the retailers’ point of view it doesn’t feel like they’re panicking just yet; but the next few days will be quite interesting to watch.”
Unusually mild weather has made warm winter clothes ranges difficult to shift, adding to the woes of retailers who experienced disappointing sales on Black Friday last month, despite offering deep discounts.
Fashion retailer Bonmarché issued a profit warning last week, saying that the warm autumn had dented sales. It said profits would be up to 22% below expectations.
The traditional January sales now start well before Christmas, with savvy consumers primed to expect price cuts. Data collected by PWC suggests that three-quarters of retailers are already reducing prices – a similar proportion to the same time last year.
Veteran retail analyst Richard Hyman said drastic pre-Christmas discounts are the final chapter in what he claims has been the most challenging year for the retail sector in more than 35 years.
Prices have fallen consistently throughout the year, with supermarkets in particular facing relentless competition from discounters such as Aldi and Lidl.
Despite recent increases in wages, which have begun to ease the squeeze on living standards which followed the financial crisis, Hyman predicts a shake-out in the New Year, as shops count the cost of a lacklustre Christmas. “There’s a lot of zombie-looking, ailing retailers that are not long for this world,” he said.
He also ridiculed British retail efforts to to mimic Black Friday – traditionally a big shopping day in America, and the day after Thanksgiving.
Last year, there were scuffles in some stores as consumers swooped on cut-price consumer electronics, such as televisions. But sales this year appear to have been disappointing.
“Black Friday was a disaster,” Hyman said. “After a relentless diet of discounting, the retail sector tried to say to consumers, ‘Here’s another discount.’”
Back on Oxford Street, Julian Chinnici, 29, confirms that despite the bustle, the pre-Christmas rush is not as frenzied as in some years. “It’s less busy than I expected it would be. I guess it’s a Sunday.”
Chinnici said he had bought something for himself because his Christmas shopping was mostly done, but added: “I’ve still got to get something for my mum.”
Jenna Revell, 22, clutching a gold box wrapped with ribbon, said: “It’s been hectic. I’ve been busy rushing all the shopping for everyone. But I am finished for today.”
Not everyone in the crowds had shopping bags in their hands, with Christmas shoppers joined by tourists and people just soaking up the festive atmosphere.
Sitting on a bench among the shoppers, Chris Fields, 43, said: “I’ve been people-watching. It’s so mild – people are even out in T-shirts. It seems upbeat, and it’s nice to see decorations.” He wasn’t sure how much shopping was left to do: “I’ll have to ask my wife”.
This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.