Stores across the UK hope for a Christmas trading boost today after recent indications that shoppers are struggling to part with their cash.
Despite predictions that the disappointing festive season would be kick-started yesterday, shoppers were said to be holding on until the last minute to pick up bargains.
As a result, next weekend is likely to be make or break, with the trickle of stores cutting prices increasing as the week goes on.
“Footfall” figures released this week showed the number of shoppers in stores yesterday was down 5.9% on the same day last year.
And with only a handful of shopping days left before Christmas, retailers were hoping for a huge boost to sales starting yesterday.
Richard Dodd, from the British Retail Consortium, said: “People leave their main Christmas shopping later and later,” he said. “Retailers will be confident that the peak is yet to come.”
Andrew Parkinson, manager of Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, predicted a last minute rush in the coming week.
He said: “With Christmas day falling on Tuesday this year retailers are expecting a peak in sales over the last weekend and Christmas Eve with many people coming last-minute shopping.”
At the Meadowhall Centre near Sheffield, customer relationship manager Richard Exton said stores had hoped to be busier.
“There’s still a feeling it is not as busy as we would like,” he said. “We are still hopeful it will pick up.”
Julie Webb, of The Mall in Chester, said: “All year our footfall has been slightly down compared to 2006, but I think this coming week will put things right.
“It’s too late to buy on the internet now and with some retailers starting their sales early, things are looking up.”
Where sales have already begun, shoppers were flooding in to pick up bargains, retailers said.
The Trafford Centre in Manchester opened an overflow car park to handle the surge in shoppers, a spokesman said.
Jonathan Edwards, commercial director at Cribbs Causeway shopping mall near Bristol, said worries about the future of the economy and the credit squeeze were making shoppers more price-sensitive.
“Interest rates and general nervousness in the economy have been reflected in customers’ behaviour this year,” he said.
“There has been a lot of discounting, which has boosted sales.
“Electrical items are doing well – from iPods to cameras – because there has been quite a lot of price deflation in that market.”
But on London’s Oxford Street, mother-of-three Sarah Poppleton said she was struggling to find a bargain.
The 42-year-old psychologist from Ashtead, Surrey, said stores advertising sales weren’t delivering price cuts.
“There are some sales but things don’t seem massively discounted. At one shop they were advertising 50% reductions but only some of the stock was in the sale and that wasn’t hugely reduced.”
She said the shops seemed quieter than in previous years. “I think it’s busy but it’s far from frantic,” she said.
The BRC’s Richard Dodd said sales growth was likely to be less than 3% up on last year.
He predicted next week would see sales pick up as shoppers buy fresh food for Christmas meals.