Record numbers hit shops in Northern Ireland as huge discounts set tills ringing
Tills were ringing across Northern Ireland yesterday as thousands of shoppers hit the high street in the last weekend before Christmas.
Retailers were reporting record numbers, with lucrative deals attracting savvy bargain hunters, and Belfast city centre experienced one of its busiest weekends of the year to date.
Discounts of up to 60% were available in many stores, including Mothercare, and seasonal goods were being snapped up by discerning consumers.
Other retailers such as M&S, River Island, H&M, Argos and Sainsbury's are already offering huge reductions, with many more sales due to kick off early instead of after Christmas.
Two days ago, so-called Panic Saturday started off a retail frenzy that is expected to last throughout the week.
Traders have said they are braced for large numbers of last-minute shoppers and many are expecting to be busy right up until shops close this Thursday on Christmas Eve.
Michelle Greeves, manager of Victoria Square shopping centre in Belfast, said business was booming. "People have been out and about all weekend and they are definitely spending money," she said.
"We are delighted with the way things have been going and we expect it to continue in the same way this week."
Around 12.6m people are believed to have hit the high streets across the UK at the weekend, spending an estimated £1.8bn, according to the Centre for Retail Research.
Industry experts have said that a mild autumn and unexpectedly low Black Friday sales are two of the main reasons behind a recent surge in shopper numbers, with stores eager to rid their shelves.
Josh McKay, manager of White Stuff clothes shop at Arthur Street in Belfast's Corn Market, said: "We have been extremely busy - much busier than normal," he said.
"We have our fingers crossed it's going to continue like this all week.
"There seem to be a lot of last-minute shoppers out there - especially men - and they are spending a lot of money."
Consumers are expected to spend £6bn between last Saturday and this Thursday - 23% more than the same period last year when Christmas Day fell on a Thursday.
Jason Gordon, consumer business partner at Deloitte, said there were definite signs that 2015 was busier than last year.
"Compared to 2014, there is already a noticeable increase in both the volume and value of discounts in the run-up to Christmas this year," he said.
"While this is very good news for consumers looking to grab a bargain, it is a clear sign that retailers are being faced with what is now an annual uphill battle."
Barry McCahon, commercial director at John H Lunn Jewellers, said they were expecting a busy week.
"Christmas Day falls on a Friday this year so we've effectively got an extra shopping day compared to last year," he said.
"We expect to be very busy this week with last-minute Christmas shoppers and men who will be looking for presents for their other halves."
Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association boss Glyn Roberts said his members had a good weekend.
"Footfall was up, sales were steady and we're expecting a busy couple of weeks," he said.
"It's definitely a lot busier than last year."
Parking places were hard to find in the city centre yesterday as Belfast City Council has made all its charged car parks free to use in the evenings and at weekends in the run-up to Christmas.