In drizzly Manchester, the traditional shopping streets looked half-dead, shunned by shoppers in the post-Christmas murk. King Street, home to luxury brands including DKNY, Belstaff and Liam Gallagher’s Pretty Green, was all but deserted in late morning, as anxious shop assistants peered out, wondering when – or if – the rush would come. St Ann’s Square, home to upmarket sports brands Rapha and Lululemon, was similarly quiet, along with House of Fraser on Deansgate – normally one of the city’s busiest department stores.
It was a different story in the Trafford Centre, where some shoppers turned up at 4am to grab the best bargains when Next opened its doors at 6am. In the Arndale in Manchester city centre, few shoppers took advantage of the 7am opening time, preferring to wait for a slightly more civilised hour before hitting the shops.
Postal worker Nick Hewell arrived at 9am, determined to do the shopping for the next significant date in his calendar. “I’ve been looking for Valentine’s presents here,” he said, producing a half-price Yankee candle from one bag and an Armani Diamonds perfume set from another.
His daughter, Rhianna, 21, had been raiding Top Shop with her friend Jenny Wallbank, 22, who was delighted to have bought £50-worth of makeup for a tenner.
Outside Next, Jill Bradbury was taking a breather. She had been online on Christmas Day to scout for purchases to buy in store, including two half-price jackets and some T-shirts for her son. She could have just bought them online, she said, but she prefers to buy in the flesh. And anyway, Boxing Day shopping has become a tradition: “Me and my daughter come and have a day out. We go for a nice lunch as well as do some shopping.”
Michelle Dawson had just refused to follow her daughters into River Island on the grounds that it looked “like a nightmare”. She gestured inside, where the floor was covered in sequinned crop tops and spray-on jeggings. The girls, Rhianna, 20, and Eleanor, 17, soon emerged empty handed. “It’s horrible in there,” shuddered Rhianna. “Too messy. We didn’t buy anything.”
Her sister still had Christmas money burning a hole in her handbag. “Eleanor hardly had anything to open yesterday because she asked for money for clothes,” explained her mum. “We’ve made the mistake in earlier years of buying things before Christmas and then seeing them half price on Boxing Day, so it was always the plan to wait until now.”
The view from London
Shoppers braving showers and the busy streets of central London for the Boxing Day sales admitted they were torn between increasing concern over the climate emergency and having new outfits to display on social media.
The final Christmas sale of the decade had been forecast to see swathes of consumers make fewer purchases of cheap clothes due to worries over the environmental impact of their production, as growing scrutiny is placed on fast fashion’s carbon footprint.
And as the drizzle turned into showers on Oxford Street on Thursday, people spoke of an increasing awareness about the ecological consequences of consumer choices.
“I work in H&M and they’re very conscious of recycling clothes,” said 24-year-old Aatikah Abouath from Birmingham, referring to the outlet’s plans to offer repair services.
However, she said social media puts pressure on young people to look a certain way. “You’ll see influencers and bloggers wearing so many new outfits and just automatically you want to buy what they’re wearing.”
Two tourists from America shopping with their mother said a greater knowledge about global heating, spearheaded by news coverage of environmental movements, was sparking a greater consciousness.
However, for the younger of the two sisters, there was concern about keeping up with appearances on social media.
“I feel like I should look trendy and look the way most people look like on social media,” said 15-year-old high school student Deema Ali. “I see all the fashionistas and beauty bloggers look a certain way, dress a certain way and have certain things.”
Amelia Burton, a 26-year-old dentist laden with shopping bags containing new boots, a coat, a jumper and two bags, said she would like to be more environmentally conscious but confessed that she liked shopping too much.
“It’s really hard not to shop,” she said. “And obviously if you go for more eco-friendly brands, the prices often triple and there is no noticeable change in quality.”
She added: “I’ve reduced my meat intake because of climate change but I think it’s harder to stop shopping due to social media.”
Others, however, told of how they rarely buy brand new clothes. “For us, we are vegan and ecologically conscious,” said Regine Ganot, 62, from Auvergne, France. “There is a change of mentalities [across the UK and France]. It has evolved fast over the past year, more people are buying second-hand clothes.”
She has been vegan for six months, along with her daughter, Done, who has been plant-based for a year; while her husband, Patrice, has been vegetarian for eight months, and they were anxious to use their purchasing power for good.
“I don’t buy anything new,” said 23-year-old Done. “I only buy second hand.”
But as the rain formed puddles across the pavements next to the bus and taxi-only high street, many others were frank about their shopping habits and conceded they did not really need the things they had bought.
“We just buy things to go out at night,” said 26-year-old Dutchman Tim van der Zee, who works in advertising. “I buy them if I like it.”