Sisters June Page and Lesley McCormick had been counting down the days to December 2, the first time in a month that they could tour the shops together.
“I am so glad we could get out,” said Ms Page, who was celebrating the end of lockdown with some Christmas present buying. “I never shop online.”
However, they were surprised at the lack of queues at 11am in Manchester city centre. “We walked straight into Primark, and there was plenty of space inside,” said Ms McCormick.
On Wednesday morning, businesses across England dusted down retail counters, checked kitchens and drink stocks, and waited with hopes that the public could be coaxed out of the latest lockdown to provide a pre-Christmas boost to flatlining annual sales.
Many consumer facing businesses, from non-essential retail to cinemas and hairdressers, have been allowed to reopen under the three tiers of restrictions. But restaurants and pubs in the most restrictive tier 3 areas, such as Manchester, can only serve takeaways. Many remain closed.
For early shoppers, the high street offered plenty of opportunities for a bargain, with retailers unleashing heavy discounts to attract customers and shift stock that has been untouched in warehouses during the month-long second national lockdown.
Jace Tyrrell, head of the New West End Company, which represents 600 businesses in London’s busiest shopping areas, said there would be “billions of pounds of stock to clear in three weeks rather than eight so customers can expect some deep discounts starting early”.
“Today marks the beginning of the most important three weeks for British retail in recent memory,” he said.
The initial response from shoppers appeared promising in the capital: queues formed ahead of the opening of Primark and Footlocker, while Oxford Street and Regent Street saw plenty of shoppers through the morning.
NWEC said footfall was 165 per cent higher than last week, with almost all West End stores reopening — many from 8am to capture as many sales as possible. But this was still 56 per cent down on last year.
Tube journeys were up 14 per cent on Wednesday morning compared with last week, according to Transport for London.
Bicester Village in Oxfordshire was also busy from 8am, according to James Lambert, deputy chairman of the discount centre’s owner, Value Retail. “The run-up to Christmas is, of course, a key period. Today started very well,” he said.
Andrew Hinds, whose 119 high street watch and jewellery shops in England reopened on Wednesday, said about a fifth of his turnover is generated in December, underlining the importance of the period for non-essential retail.
Mr Hinds, who briefly had all but eight of his 972 staff on furlough at the start of the lockdown period, hopes that shoppers will pick up where they left off at the end of October, when trade was recovering again after the first set of restrictions.
The Christmas period, known as the “golden quarter” in the hospitality and retail sectors, could be decisive for many businesses ahead of tough trading months in the first quarter of next year, when restrictions will still be in place.
Restaurants and pubs, which have borne the brunt of the coronavirus measures, are hoping that they will be able to make up for the lockdown closures.
“We’re getting pretty good at opening and closing restaurants,” said James Elliot, co-founder of the London chain Pizza Pilgrims. Two days ago, his team had turned on the ovens at their sites to get them to the 400C needed to cook pizzas when they reopened on Wednesday.
But pub operators, hampered by restrictions that require them to sell a full meal alongside alcoholic drinks, were worried.
Clive Watson, chairman of City Pub Company, has spent £360,000 reopening 36 of its 46 sites. Referring to cabinet minister Michael Gove’s comments that scotch eggs could be considered “substantial meals” under the guidelines, Mr Watson said that he often had one for lunch and it was the “only good thing Gove has said in the last five years”.
But at The Hare, a pub in east London, landlord Julian Apperley said that he would not reopen: “My capacity is already cut in half by the virus. If you have to have a scotch egg with your pint that cuts it down again to a quarter.”
Nick Collins, chief executive of bar chain Loungers, said that average spend per head had been going up before the lockdown — a trend he hoped would continue as customers embraced the Christmas mood. But he found that planning for Christmas had been difficult, given the speed of reopening: “I have no doubt we will have a fair number of turkey pies kicking around come January,” he said.
Business owners fear that January could also yield further failures in the hospitality and retail sectors if consumer demand remains lacklustre.
The economic damage of the restrictions was on show for shoppers on Wednesday, with Debenhams, the collapsed department store, selling off its stock at knockdown prices after going into liquidation on Tuesday.
While the London flagship store appeared to be doing a good trade, its Manchester branch was bustling but not overcrowded.
England’s third-largest city centre has emerged from lockdown into the half-life of tier 3 restrictions. Pubs, restaurant and cafés can operate only as takeaways, and at Foundation, a coffee shop, tables usually packed with freelancers working on laptops were empty.
Dominic Beardwell, the owner, said trade was less than a tenth of normal. “It’s pocket money to pay a few bills,” he said.
Richard Farnell, co-owner of record store Vinyl Exchange, said footfall on Wednesday remained lower than usual. Online sales meant the shop had survived lockdown but even the prospect of a vaccine did not convince him 2021 would be much better.
“You’ve still got Covid, there’s Brexit and a recession coming. It is not a good time to be in retail,” he said.
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