By Paul Sandle and Freya Berry
LONDON (Reuters) - British retailers risked missing out on the traditional pre-Christmas rush on Monday as dire weather hit the country, potentially putting off millions of shoppers holding out for last-minute discounts.
Despite huge red signs announcing sales of up to 70 percent, many of the stores on London's Oxford Street were quiet on Monday, with many shoppers heeding the advice of the national weather service to stay at home.
"With the weather, well, it's really quiet," shopper Betty Sanger told Reuters in the Marks & Spencer's Oxford Street store, having snapped up discounted toiletries. "A few years ago you wouldn't have been able to get in here."
Some indoor malls, however, were likely to benefit. The Waitrose department store-supermarket in London's Canary Wharf had long lines waiting at tills.
Despite tentative signs of recovery in Britain's economy, consumers are nonetheless feeling the pinch as wages have failed to keep pace with inflation.
Shoppers have also learnt from experience that the longer they leave it to buy Christmas gifts, the more shops will slash prices to tempt them.
"Do you reckon this is going to go on sale soon?" one shopper was heard asking a sales assistant last week in a London fashion store. "We're not allowed to know," was the response, adding with a smile the customer should try again on Monday.
Clothing retailers have endured a particularly tough autumn, with the milder-than-expected weather putting shoppers off from buying winter clothes.
Department stores are also seeing sales seep away to the Internet, official data last week showed, while a pick up in the housing market has meant that many Britons are spending what money they have on their homes, and not on what they wear.
"I think the consumer has got used to the idea that there will be a last-minute price cut and so may have held off their spending," said Gerard Lane, equity strategist at Shore Capital.
Omar Deedat, aged 29, and shopping on London's Oxford Street said he had a lot to buy on Monday.
"I was here on Saturday and it was horrific, especially with the rain," he said. "A lot of discounts are on. I bought a pair of Kurt Geiger boots for 85 pounds ($140), reduced from 195."
Britain's biggest clothing retailer Marks & Spencer slashed 30 percent off all clothing, and heavily discounted other non-food products, on Saturday in a flash sale, that it extended to Sunday.
It said the discounts would continue on Monday on selected lines including men and women's jumpers.
"Spending has been directed over the last three to four months to more housing-related, not typical Christmas-related, items," said analyst Lane. "There's a combination of factors which may mean that some of the names on the high street may be struggling."
Research from PwC found last week that 72 percent of 100 high street retailers were on sale or offering discounts. It said average cuts being advertised were 46 percent.
Monday had been forecast as the busiest day on Britain's shopping streets but heavy rain and storms could result in the last-minute surge turning into a trickle.
Visa Europe had said it expected consumers to spend some 1.24 billion pounds ($2 billion) on Monday, which would make it the busiest shopping day of the year on Britain's High Street.
Westfield, the owner of London's two biggest shopping malls, said it recorded the busiest weekend of the year so far, and was hopeful that with many office workers already on holiday, Monday would be busy too.
But on Oxford Street, the pavements were sparse, as a few pedestrians struggled with their bags and the wind. Behind the enormous red sales signs advertising 60 percent off at Gap, just 16 people were sifting through the stock on its ground floor.
Heavy rain and strong winds were expected to disrupt road and rail travel ahead of the Christmas break across Britain, with the Met Office issuing amber weather warnings for Wales, south-west, south and east England.
"The public should be prepared for the likelihood of some significant disruption due to the combined hazards of heavy rainfall and high winds," the Met Office said on its website. ($1 = 0.6114 British pounds)
(Additional reporting by Sarah Young and Limei Hoang Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)
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