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"Mad panic" for shoppers in final rush

TILLS were frantically ringing across Northern Ireland today as the longest festive holiday break on record began.

TILLS were frantically ringing across Northern Ireland today as the longest festive holiday break on record began.

As offices and factories wound down, shop staff were kept busy with last minute shoppers and bargain hunters.

Belfast traders hope to net around £200m in sales this year.

But although millions of pounds have changed hands, retailers in the province had been hoping for an even bigger bonanza.

Frank Caddy of Belfast Chamber of Trade said: "The city centre was busy again today.

"We are having the traditional Belfast Christmas which is one mad panic for the last seven to ten days."

However, he admitted it had been a struggle for many traditional traders.

"Across the UK, retailing has been a lot more difficult this year," he said.

While some stores saw a big increase in business, it was expected overall trade would be one or two per cent down on last year.

Mr Caddy pointed to the money being spent on new technology as one reason for the downturn.

For example, there were four million extra mobile phones in circulation with bills and rentals to be paid. That was cash which was being taken out of the spending budget, he said.

Staff at supermarkets struggled to cope with the demand, and some frustrated shoppers reported empty shelves as bosses waited anxiously for fresh deliveries from over-run suppliers.

A Tesco spokesperson said: "First, people are buying more because of the longer holiday period and, secondly, an awful lot of people are going for the traditional Christmas with all the trimmings.

"There would appear to be many people organising big celebrations at home.

"Several of our stores have had to open for 24 hours to cope with demand.

Marks & Spencer said their food departments were enjoying brisk business. They expected record sales of their most popular lines.

Traders in Derry were enjoying a bumper Christmas.

Fears that the high punt-sterling exchange rates may have tempted shoppers across the border appear to have been unfounded, as many shopowners in the city have reported a rise in pre-Christmas profits.

Meanwhile, thousands of revellers jetted in today to spend Christmas with their loved ones. Belfast International Airport laid on festive entertainment, including a roving Santa and carol singers, to get weary travellers into the festive spirit. As travellers streamed through the airport BIA managing director Paul Kehoe said it was a record breaking year, with 15% more passengers arriving than last year. Today 8,000 travellers will pass through the airport eager to see their families. Mr Kehoe said: "It is absolutely fantastic to see so many people flying into the province and it's down to several reasons, including the peace deal, the Millennium and low cost carriers." Although there was a strong wind warning, Mr Kehoe said any delays will be kept to a minimum. There were emotional scenes today as people met friends and relatives. Colm McStay warmly greeted his brother Paul who flew in from Boston.

Paul said that although his flight from Heathrow was delayed an hour it did not dampen his festive spirit. "It's good to see my brother after such a long time, and I am looking forward to spending Christmas with my family in Lurgan." His brother Colm said: "It's absolutely fantastic that we are going to have a big family Christmas together, like many other people who travelled on the flight today.