A new report from Mintel paints a cautiously optimistic picture on the UK high street this Christmas. Low inflation and the continued presence of cheaper imports mean that retailers are able to offer unprecedented value to consumers, and clothing continues to sit at the top the Christmas gift list.

Low inflation and the continued presence of cheaper imports mean that retailers are able to offer unprecedented value to consumers this year. In fact, current price growth for year-on-year December retail sales across all areas is estimated to be in the region of 3-3.5 per cent, less than 1999's 4 per cent. But despite the strength of the UK economy, expenditure on Christmas gifts may end up not being significantly higher than 1999.

Home shopping increases appeal
According to the latest research from Mintel - ''Christmas Shopping Habits' - almost a quarter of 1,754 adults surveyed are intending to shop from home this Christmas. Eighteen per cent have expressed an interest in shopping via mail order, up from 15 per cent in 1999.

Interest in online shopping doubled from 3 per cent of consumers in 1999, to 6 per cent in 2000. And of the 34 per cent who have used the Internet in the last six months, 15 per cent have shopped online.

"Although there has been a sharp increase in online shopping this year, the success will be dependent upon retailers being able to fulfil orders and ensure timely deliveries during the festive period," comments retail consultant Neil Mason.

Somewhat surprisingly, there is relatively little overlap between the use of mail order and online. Mail order is heavily skewed towards women in family and empty nester groups, whereas online users mainly come from the pre-family group. By contrast, online is a very male orientated channel for shopping, with men twice as likely to shop online than women.

"The fact that only 8 per cent of adults think that home shopping takes the hassle out of Christmas shopping suggests that home shopping is actually providing a relatively small element of total gift shopping by adults," comments Neil mason.

Too many online barriers to entry
Almost a fifth of those using the Internet in the last six months highlighted fears about credit card security. This is an alarmingly high figure for a group of experienced Internet users.

Another factor believed to be a barrier to greater usage of the Internet for gift buying is the mismatch between what people are most likely to give as gifts and what is readily available and easy to buy online. Jewellery, perfume and clothing are the most popularly received gifts among women and therefore most likely to be bought by men, who account for 60 per cent of online users. But choosing clothing online is time consuming and certainly neither a very tactile, or visual experience compared to physical selection in a shop.

Clothing tops Santa's Christmas wish list
Clothing is the most popularly purchased and received Christmas gift. Since 1998, books have displaced chocolates and other confectionery from the top three most popularly bought gifts, and pre-recorded music has jumped ahead of chocolate and confectionery - which look to be in a decline.

Perfume, toiletries and jewellery also seem to be in decline, but growth in the popularity of gift tokens has taken these items from tenth to seventh most popular gifts purchased.

Top ten gifts purchased, 1998-2000

1998 1999 2000
1 Clothing Clothing Clothing
2 Toys & games Toys & games Toys & games
3 Chocolates Books Books
4 Books Perfume Music
5 Perfume Music Chocolates
6 Toiletries Chocolates Perfume
7 Music Toiletries Gift tokens
8 Jewellery Jewellery Drink
9 Drink Gift tokens Toiletries
10 Gift tokens Drink Jewellery

Source: Mintel

In terms of receiving preferences, jewellery and perfume rather than clothes are more popularly received by women although, overall, clothing achieves the accolade as the number one most desired gift.

Music features even more prominently among the preferences of younger men, but clothing is popular enough among older men to result in it being the most preferred gift among all men. Drink also features prominently among men's receiving preferences and is the third most popularly received present.

The late, late show
The proportion of last-minute shoppers (25 per cent) now exceeds the proportion of early planners (24 per cent). With Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday, the last minute rush is going to be even later than usual. "The weekend of Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th December are going to be extremely busy, these will be full trading days for the majority of businesses," comments Neil Mason.

It is also the case that the proportion of those that claim to hate Christmas shopping (30 per cent) is greater than the proportion that state they enjoy it (27 per cent). However, the fact that the latter increased from 22 per cent in 1999 is a very positive finding which is taken to be indicative that an element of shoppers, mainly younger adults and women, see shopping as a legitimate leisure activity that can be enjoyed not endured.

There is one possible dampener on overall expenditure prospects in 2000. This is the finding that the proportion of those in the sample who spend more when shopping than they intend to is lower (31 per cent) among the 2000 sample than the year before (34 per cent).

No fuss nativity
Some 43 per cent of adults like a no-fuss nativity - and they are the most likely to hate Christmas shopping. This group is biased towards men, which is not surprising since men dislike shopping on a day-to-day basis and hate having to do it at Christmas.

Around 28 per cent of adults have Christmas wrapped up, they are well-organised consumers who enjoy present shopping and stick to a strict budget. Shopping starts early, with gift purchases planned well in advance. This group is dominated by women - especially those with children - who have to be highly organised.

Almost 30 per cent of adults are Yule fools, leaving everything to the last minute. These time-pressed consumers decide on gifts at the shop, and tend to spend more than they planned to. They are the most likely to trawl a wide variety of shops, and take advantage of late-night and Sunday opening. Here there is a noted age bias towards the young, reflecting the busier lifestyles of youth.

Extended shopping hours - a consumer winner!
Greater enjoyment of shopping may also be linked to the fact that around a third of adults take advantage of Sunday (31 per cent) and late-night (35 per cent) opening to do their gift shopping. Extended opening hours both during the evenings and on Sundays in the run-up to Christmas have undoubtedly helped reduce congestion, which also contributes to a more pleasurable experience.

Although it incurs increased costs, extended opening is undoubtedly worthwhile as it encourages more shopping trips to be made and contributes to greater satisfaction and enjoyment.

'Christmas Shopping Habits' is available from Mintel, price £695. For further information call the sale hotline on: +44 020 7606 6000.