Features | 26 Oct 2023

Christmas shopping: why we still love the high street

Families tell us where they find the magic in both in-person and online shopping during the festive period.

As the nights draw in, our high streets twinkle as they welcome crowds of shoppers in the run-up to Christmas. Traditionally, we would go hunting for gifts in town centres festooned with Christmas trees and festive lights. As our shopping bags grew heavy, we might pop into a church to hear carols or stop for a mulled wine and a mince pie.

Yet the convenience and choice offered by online shopping has given us competing options that are growing in popularity. In the five years between 2017 and 2022, online spending during the festive season surged by £8 billion, according to Statista, while in-store spending fluctuated. This growth was in spite of online gift-buying dropping slightly after lockdown, with sales in 2022 at £5 billion less than they were in 2020, when they hit £35.26 billion. The bottom line is that there is still something about the in-store retail experience that draws us in, with physical sales still ahead of online shopping in every year during that period.

So it seems that ‘traditional’ Christmas shopping is something that people want to hold onto.

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Dominique Foster, a mother of two, loves a festive trawl around the shops. “For me there is nothing like blocking out the entire day for Christmas shopping,” she said. “I head out, list in hand, and soon my arms are nearly hanging off from the weight of so many bags and I need to go back to the car park to drop off my first run.”

Foster likes to shop in person for presents, especially those destined for adults, “as I want to see them in the flesh, ideally.” She admits to feeling nostalgia for the way she shopped with her mum and friends as a teenager.

Before targeted online advertising and search engines could track down whatever we desired, television adverts and catalogues showed families what they could buy. “We used to go through the Argos catalogue as kids and cut out whatever we wanted,” recalls Becca Haggerty. “Then we would stick it down on a piece of paper and create our Christmas lists. Nowadays, I do some shopping online,” she says, “but if I can get an item from the high street then I will, as it feels more personal.

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“I’ve always liked to look for little surprise Christmas gifts when I’m late-night shopping,” she adds. “It makes me feel festive.”

One benefit of children watching less broadcast TV these days is that they are subject to less advertising (though some online services and platforms are starting to stream more advertisements). So some parents feel that, when it comes to writing letters to Father Christmas, the internet can actually be useful. “My kids mostly select their presents on Amazon,” said Dominique. “But at least this way they can scroll through the website’s gift ideas lists, watch online adverts and read reviews for the toys they are interested in.”

Beth Hepburn takes her children to her local town centre to shop, but the trips are brief and tend to be for stocking fillers or smaller, incidental presents. “Sometimes we go for a wander along the high street,” she says. “We get sweets from a traditional shop and socks from FatFace. Most of the time though, my boys find gifts for others online. We buy them and the boys give us cash.”

Beth finds a way to make even online shopping feel traditional: her sons find what they want online then create a list from their findings. “I make them write their lists out by hand,” she explains. “It’s nostalgic, but it’s so I can hang them up by the fireplace afterwards. Friends and relatives often read them when they visit.”

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In order to compete with online retail spending, shops in towns and cities often club together now to give customers an incentive to keep their high street going – especially high streets that are home to small, independent businesses. In both Bath and Bristol, for example, people can buy a gift card that can be loaded up with money and used in more than 200 shops, restaurants and businesses.

Another traditional form of in-person shopping that is thriving in 2023 is the Christmas market. Alpine-style huts dusted in fake snow pockmark the streets of towns and cities from Exeter to Lincoln. As convenient as online shopping can be, perhaps it’s the annual nature of Christmas that makes us want to slow down, enjoy the festive atmosphere and take pleasure in our gift giving.

Dr Sandra Wheatley, a social psychologist, thinks that the social aspect of Christmas shopping with friends or family helps make it exciting. She describes the pleasure people feel when they discuss what to get others and when they try to keep their presents a secret. “It’s good fun,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. Knowing that, with your present, you are giving the people you love pleasure is a really wonderful feeling.”

She acknowledges, however, that the busy run-up to Christmas can be stressful. “Shopping is a necessary evil but you can make it pleasurable,” she said. “Yes, you can sit down at your computer on the last Friday before Christmas and get it all done. But, if families do it together, there is a value in the process of Christmas shopping that is worth far more than pounds and pence. Hopefully what we pass onto future generations will be how to retain the positives of shopping and giving, while shedding the negatives,” she said. “That is the real Christmas gift.”

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