Boxing day shoppers smash sales records with visitors to London's west end shops up 31.3 per cent over last year by 11am.

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The flagship Selfridges shop in Oxford Street reported its most successful first hour of trade ever, with several thousand lining up outside by 7am and £1.5m rattling through the tills in the morning. In London's west end, there were 31.3 per cent more Boxing Day shoppers than last year, with sales fuelled by rich tourists from countries including the Middle East, China and Nigeria, Press Association reported.

There were similar scenes across the UK as bargain hunters started arriving overnight. The number of shoppers rose 21.6 per cent on the 2012 average.

Some retailers opened early while others cut prices online on Christmas Eve in an attempt to boost sales. Marks & Spencer brought forward its sale to launch online two days ago. Debenhams also started its online sale early and department store John Lewis cut online prices when its stores closed on Christmas Eve.

With economies in the UK and the rest of Europe slowing and unemployment soaring, some analysts feared holiday spending might disappoint for the fourth year in a row. In Paris, refurbished second-hand toys were attracting buyers. In Rome, some shopkeepers say holiday sales were down 20 per cent from last year.

But in the UK analysts at Experian said 126 million online visitors could spend almost £500m today, while MoneySupermarket.com said shoppers could part with £2.9bn in the sales. Others were not so positive with Pricerunner predicting half of the shoppers surveyed would not buy anything.

Risk of bankruptcy

Some retailers are at risk of going under in the new year after tough Christmas trading conditions, a report released today warned.

Consumer cutbacks and the increasing popularity of online retailers have seen a sharp rise in the number of firms in financial distress, according to research by business recovery group Begbies Traynor released 26 December.

The study found almost 140 firms were in a critical condition in the fourth quarter, meaning they are on the brink of collapse, while more than 13,700 were in "significant" distress - up 35 per cent during the three months to 17 December.

£5bn pre-Christmas weekend spend

During the last weekend before Christmas an estimated £5bn pounds was spent and Richard Dodd, spokesman for the British Retail Consortium, said trading had met expectations.

"Christmas, ultimately once all the final sums are done, will turn out to be acceptable but not exceptional," he said. The retail sector expected a modest increase in cash spending against a year go, but not necessarily a significant increase in real terms once inflation was stripped out, he added.

As in the US, holiday shopping is vital to many businesses: British non-food retailers can make up to 50 per cent of their profits in the end-of-year push. In Germany, holiday business accounts for 30 per cent of annual toy sales.

But the arc of the holiday shopping seasons is a little different in every country. The Dutch open presents on 5 December, the eve of St. Nicholas day. In Spain, many children tear open presents on 6 January when tradition has it the three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. In Britain, France and most of Europe gifts are exchanged on 25 December.

As the 17 country eurozone slips back into recession, this festive season may mark a new normal for Europe, analysts say.

"Every year it comes later," said Joachim Stoll, who co-owns Leder-Stoll OHG, a leather and luggage retailer just off the glittering Zeil pedestrian shopping quarter in Frankfurt, Germany. "People wait longer and longer, even after Christmas."

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