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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 December 2005, 18:44 GMT
Christmas chill on Oxford Street?
By Stephen Dowling
BBC News in central London

Denise Trayling
Denise Trayling couldn't put it off any longer
It is a cold but clear day on Oxford Street in London. Clusters of girls hang around outside Top Shop. Evangelist Phil is busy berating the city's sinners through a megaphone.

There is one crucial difference; it is less than a week before Christmas.

You would expect to see the pavements clogged with panicking present-buyers, their frowns furrowing as the minutes tick away on this truncated shopping day.

But instead, W1 is eerily quiet. Shoppers thread their way up and down past Christmas tunes blaring festive favourites, clarion calls for those ever-more-essential Christmas pounds.

The smell wafting down London's most famous shopping street isn't just that of roasting chestnuts - it's of high street desperation.

Falling prices

Recent figures showed internet shopping in November was up 50% on last year - while high street sales only managed a rise of just 0.9%.

Oxford Street's lustre has also been challenged by the rise of out-of-town malls such as Bluewater in Kent.

Denise Trayling, from Queen's Park in north-west London, is dressed for the elements and already weighed down with several bags. "I couldn't put it off any longer," she admits.

Brian McDougall
Brian McDougall's made the most of working close to Oxford Street

"I thought it would be busier - a lot busier. But it's not much worse than any other weekend."

She says she had tried to do some of her Christmas shopping online but found many of the things she wanted to buy "were sold out, or else they couldn't guarantee they'd get them to me on time".

But she says one benefit is the price. "A couple of things I've bought for some children are at a reduced price already," she says.

"I think everyone presumes it's going to be packed here, and if you can avoid it you will."

Two other shoppers, Paul Allen, from West Hampstead, and Nicola Gerken, from Clapham, are attempting to get all their shopping in one day.

Candle stall
It's a cold wind blowing down Oxford Street...

"I'm not going to get any more time between now and Christmas," Mr Allen says. "I drove through here yesterday, and they had blocked the traffic from part of the street. It seemed a lot busier yesterday.

"But I can't believe it's going to stay this quiet all this afternoon."

Ms Gerken says: "My flatmates all did their Christmas shopping online, but I haven't."

They are enjoying their trawl through the shops. "It's the first weekend where it feels really festive," Mr Allen says.

"You need to be buying your Christmas shopping when it's like this, getting all your Christmas wrapping paper..." He stops and turns suddenly to his partner. "That's what we need!"

Brian McDougall, a South African now living on the Isle of Dogs, is doing the last of his Christmas shopping.

Quiet year

He works near to Oxford St, so has done a lot of his shopping in lunchtimes. He'd rather do that than buy online.

"I know friends who have, but I don't like the impersonal nature of it. Here, you've got all the convenience of the superstores. Nine times out of 10 you're going to find what you want."

Menashi Gold, who works at a candle stall just opposite Debenhams department store, says it's been one of the quietest years he's seen.

Debhams sign
Amazon included?

"I think each year since September 11 it's getting worse. Now you've got Bluewater, you've got all these out-of-town shops.

"People used to work in London, go back to Essex or wherever they lived, and then on the weekend they'd come back to London to shop."

Now, he says, the Oxford Street trade is more dependent on tourists.

Retailers no doubt hope the spend-at-Christmas message is one that travels.

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