TILLS were ringing and wallets were emptied as bargain hunters made the most of Christmas cracker deals across Northern Ireland.
As Boxing Day sales drove crowds into Belfast city centre to make the most of slashed prices, shops were heaving yesterday afternoon.
It was welcome relief for traders as shoppers came in their thousands just weeks after three bomb attacks brought terror to Belfast city centre, as well as continued flag protests.
It was midday madness throughout Cornmarket, Royal Avenue and Victoria Square, as well as the smaller retailing areas, with early indications that trading figures were up on last year.
It was in stark contrast to the scenes earlier this month when police tape cordoned off the usually busy shopping district because of security alerts.
After a lacklustre year on the high street, thousands of retailers slashed their prices, with bargains of up to 95% off to be had in some outlets.
Customers were literally spilling out the front door of Lush, the natural organic beauty store on Church Lane, tucked away off a bustling Cornmarket.
A sea of bobble hats and woolly scarves wormed their way around the shop loading items under their arms and scrambling to find the best reductions.
Trainee manager Kirsty McReynolds Lunn said it was the busiest Boxing Day she had seen in years.
"We are always really busy on Boxing Day.
"We never tell people what our plans are for the sale," she said. "But it's been really busy, probably the busiest I've seen it in the last five or six years.
"We have been absolutely hectic since we opened at 12 and all the Christmas products as well as some other products have been 50% off."
People from near and far braved the freezing cold to line the streets patiently waiting for stores such as Next and Primark to open.
Others joined lengthy queues to get in to jam-packed computer console store Game – where people queued out the door for a large part of the day.
Margaret O'Kane and her mother Emma were up at 3am and were second in the queue for the popular Next sale, the queue for which snaked around Royal Avenue as eager shoppers waited in line to get the best reductions on offer.
Margaret said: "We arrived here at 4.45am, after travelling from Maghera; people go to the pub and then stay out and come to the sale.
"We were a bit disappointed as 60% of the stock wasn't on sale."
On the back of a turbulent year for retailers across Northern Ireland, economic chiefs welcomed the festive boost.
Chief executive at the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, Glyn Roberts, said he hoped the boost for local businesses continued into the new year.
"This time of year is the harvest for many of our traders and obviously we want to see consumers backing the businesses and spending their hard-earned cash.
"I'd have to say the footfall is up on last year, but it's the money in the till that is the real indicator of green shoots and improvement.
"Hopefully this upturn in footfall is a reflection of the economy starting to turn round, with more confidence among consumers – and the traders themselves.
"In the run-up to Christmas it's been busy in our other shopping districts, not just Belfast, which is encouraging.
"So we want to see more of that, a growing footfall and, of course, cash in the tills."
So what was the shoppers' verdict?
1. Edith Urhiafe (50) from Belfast
"I've come into Belfast to pick up duvets and bedding for a homeless charity I would donate to. This way I can get good discounts and make the money go further. This is my first day of coming into Belfast on Boxing Day and it's been worth it, even if there's only a small change in the price. It's been busy and there's been queues but I made sure I was in for 8am to miss the rush of the afternoon crowds."
2. William Stitt (49) from Belfast
"I'm moving into a new house, so I am getting bits and pieces for it. I've been shopping since 9.30am. I've picked up some good bargains from House of Fraser. To be fair, I've saved a few quid, and sure it's better in my pocket than theirs. I prefer to have a look rather than shop online."
3. Lucy Patterson (16) and Molly Temple (15) from Glengormley
"I couldn't believe some of the bargains we have got. What makes this better than just buying online is that you can try things on. We're really pleased."
4. Deirdre (28) and Aoife Kane (26) from Belfast
"We have purchased some perfume and coats. The town is really busy. We were in for 10am and it was really quiet, but now it's just queues everywhere. It's a wee tradition, we go together every year. The coat was the best bargain, reduced from £60 to £20."
5. Callum Baxter (16), Keagan McCann (15), Lindsay Carroll (15), Curtis Mealey (15) from Carrickfergus
"You get more choice by coming into the shops to use your Santa money. I think we've done well on clothes."
6. Marijanna Martin (25) and David McDonald (27) from Belfast
"For us it's a bit of a tradition to come into town on Boxing Day. We're both off work, a few returns to make but also a great chance to see what other discounts we can pick up. One coat we bought was originally £240 down to £167 from House of Fraser. It's hard to beat."
7. Joanne (42) and Jake McKinney (11) from Newry
"We have been up since 7.30am and got into Belfast at 9.30am. We've been buying mainly clothes and there was 50% off on saucepans in Le Creuset, which was really great. Game was absolutely bunged with people. My son wanted to get games, but it was queued right out the door."
8. Eoin and Donal Mageean (both 27) from Saintfield
"We've been making the most of sales for three or four years. The Next sale was mental, there's no changing rooms, you throw on your item next to everyone. We popped into Forestside first and the Next shelves were cleared. Some jeans we bought in G-Star were 50% off."
9. June (54) and Jeff Cordner (57) from Antrim
"We have just been to Primark so far, where he got a top – it was £16 down to £7. We have never come in on Boxing Day but we have this time, as June didn't get what she wanted. So we are buying new stuff as well as some returns. At 11am it was quiet, but now it's getting busy."
10. Emma and Louise Law from Scotland, visiting Hillsborough
"We have been in since 11am but we wouldn't get up really early – life is too short for that. We like to come into the shops because there are always things in the shops that you couldn't get online. We got some great perfume sets, such as the Lancome La Vie Est Belle."
20 Best Boxing Day Bargains
1 Duplex Dolls House at Early Learning Centre
Was £100 Now £50
2Mango Coat at House of Fraser
Was £60 Now £20
360 litre rucksack at Trespass Was £99.99 Now £49.99
4Monsters Inc interactive Sulley toy at Disney Store
Was £35 Now £17.49
5Flat sheet bedding at Marks and Spencers
Was £16 Now £10
6Ultrabalm all purpose balm (right) at Lush
Was £8.50 Now £4.25
7Vera Wang perfume (right,top) at House of Fraser
Was £36 Now £18
8Playsuit at Urban Outfitters
Was £30 Now £10
9Shoes at JD sports
Were £100 Now £50
10Jeans for men at G Star
Were £90 Now £45
11Sleeping bag at Trespass
Was £69.99 Now £49.99
12Supermarket and Trolley at Early Learning Centre Was £60 Now £30
13 Ankle boots at Clarkes
Were £79.99 Now £49.99
14Spiderman art kit at Disney Store
Was £15 Now £10
15 Shoes at Primark
Was £8 Now £1
16PS3 Assasin's Creed IV Black Flag game (bottom) at Game
Was £44.99 Now £28
17 Skyfall DVD (below left) at HMV
Was £12.99 Now £4.99
18Xtreme Pushchair at Mothercare
Was £400 Now £160
1947in LG Smart 3D Television (above left) at Currys
Was £1,000 Now £599
20Oval oven dish at Le Creuset
Was £27 Now £13.50