They started arriving at midnight.
By 3am there were a couple of hundred waiting in the queue outside the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, east London. By 5am it was manic, with the queue to get in the centre snaking around the building, past the closed and empty restaurants and into the freezing night.
“I saw one woman queuing out here at 3am with her kids,” said one shell-shocked Boxing Day security guard. “And I swear to god I saw her use that pushchair as a battering ram.” As the 6am opening grew closer, scuffles had broken out as people tried to push in the queue, he said. “It’s been fairly good tempered, but we have had to keep the peace on a few occasions.”
By 9am on Boxing Day, which reportedly saw the biggest discounts since the collapse of Lehman brothers in 2008, Westfield was already heaving with thousands of shoppers.
Around the country queues formed outside major stores - at Harrods in central London the red carpet was rolled out and the most dedicated shoppers were rewarded with complimentary mince pies and blankets.
Outside the Bullring branch of Selfridges in Birmingham, shoppers started arriving at 2.30am, with thousands outside by the time the store opened its doors.
The biggest queue at Westfield Stratford could be found outside the shop beloved of normcore enthusiasts and mother-in-laws on a mission to buy socks - Next.
With a separate entrance to the centre dedicated for shoppers to the store, around 20 or so security guards herded the crowds with the intensity and rigour of a military operation. One guard, megaphone in hand, shouted: “Please don’t push, there is a pushchair here - watch what you are doing, have a bit of common sense or someone is going to get hurt.”
Sitting on the floor outside the shop, surrounded by around 10 bulging Next bags, one of the store’s first customers, Taran Gazu, 26, took a break from the battle to assess her spoils. “I am so tired,” she said, tucking into the potatoes she and her sister had brought as a picnic, to keep them going.
“We arrived at 4.30, and it only opened at 6am so we were absolutely freezing. We got in and said: ‘Ok, we are in; where do we start?’”
Last year they made the mistake of coming later and had to wait an hour and a half to get into the store, so this year they took no chances, setting the alarm for 3am – after starting online shopping at midnight. Asked if it was worth it, she looked puzzled. “Of course! Shopping is our thing.”
Lin Lee, 30, sat close by, throwing away clothes hangers in order to stuff more purchases into a large suitcase. She got here at 3.30, and by 9am had spent around £1,500 in Next.
“I like to get in early,” she said, saying that she would take many of her purchases back to China. She gestured at the restive masses filing through a cordon outside the shop: “Look now there is too much queue.”
Huge discounts on Black Friday – the American retail tradition of offering heavy one-day only discounts at the end of November to kick off the seasonal shopping frenzy – and the shift to online shopping are expected to tame the traditional Boxing Day sales.
According to data firm Experian and online retailing trade association IMRG a record £636m was spent online on Christmas Day, with the number of visits made to shopping websites – an estimated 142m – up 25% on last year. Internet shoppers are expected to spend £748m on Boxing Day, a whopping £519,000 a minute while online retail sites can expect 167 million visits – up 29% on 2013.
“This year has seen record-breaking online shopping rates, particularly on Black Friday, which saw an astronomical £810m in estimated spend,” said Experian’s Giles Longhurst. “Traditionally, the Boxing Day sales have been the busiest day for retailers in the UK, but this year we expect them to come second to Black Friday.”
While many chains, including Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Currys PC World begin their sales online on Christmas Eve, experts say some of the best deals are likely to be found in stores as retailers make price cuts to clear stock quickly.
Westfield director Myf Ryan said the centre expected to repeat the record sales of 2013, when 360,000 shoppers passed through the doors of the company’s two shopping centres.
“Boxing Day remains a huge attraction for shoppers and we can’t see that changing – despite the shopping frenzy around Black Friday, she said.
UK Retailers are expected to ring up sales of nearly £3bn on Boxing Day, with many offering huge discounts to shift stock left in shops because of the unusually mild weather. Shoppers waiting to get into shops for the sales in the country may have rued a change in the weather, as they waited in freezing temperatures. Still, waiting longer could be more painful still – as the Met Office issued a severe cold weather warning, starting at 11am on Friday and running through to 6am on Saturday, with up to four inches of snow expected in high areas by the afternoon.
There was little evidence that the shift to online shopping or the weather had resulted in a lull in the Boxing Day bonanza in east London. Collal Dawkins, 17, arrived at 4am with his pals because they thought the best bargains would be found in store, not online. “Online is congested, online is sold out, online lies,” he said. “Do you know how many pairs of Jordans I tried to buy on Christmas Day, only to be told they had sold out. I don’t trust online.” Not that he was delighted with his purchases so far. “We expected mad sales, like 80% off – but we didn’t read that small print ‘on selected items’.”
Jostling for space in the vast Primark store in Westfield, Adama Sesay, 21, was trying to motivate her friend, who was flicking half-heartedly through racks of trousers. The students from Holland were taking advantage of the big discounts on offer she said, but admitted to losing her focus. “I came for trousers, and I’ve got a jacket, tops and some trainers – but no trousers. But we are enjoying ourselves.”
At the other end of the scale in Hugo Boss, Brazilian tattoo artist Bruno Wayhs was trying on luxury coats, some with a discount of nearly £300. This was his first experience of the very British tradition, but it hadn’t been too painful so far.
“I normally spend Boxing Day with my family and to be honest I thought the sales would be worse. I have already bought a few things, but I decided to buy a few items that were very expensive and save a lot.”
He had not, as yet, queued to get into any shops. “I am lucky,” he said. “I don’t like Next.”
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