Retailers face a nail-biting Christmas as festive trading goes right to the wire. They hope for a last-minute surge of shoppers, kicked off by payday tomorrow (Friday December 20).

The anticipated rush follows a difficult period for retailers. Fashion businesses in particular have been trading blows in a discounting war, in part sparked by weak sales during a mild winter. 

This week retailers were hit by a swathe of City downgrades as investors took fright at the possibility of Christmas trading coming in below expectations.

Waitrose managing director Mark Price said: “Every year retailers say that Christmas is late – but this year you can see their point.” Boots UK boss Simon Roberts said consumers are “shopping later than ever”.

Custom is expected to peak on Monday as throngs of shoppers take the first two days of the week off to hunt for gifts. Visa Europe forecasts £1.2bn will be spent on its cards across high streets on December 23.

Ann Summers chief executive Jacqueline Gold said: “It’s likely that the high street will see a last-minute surge as shoppers hold off for the best discounts.”

Waterstones boss James Daunt expects sales to be slightly down because of an unspectacular product line-up and believes the weather, forecast to be wet and windy, will be crucial.

David Short, country managing director, Macintosh Fashion UK, which operates Brantano and Jones Bootmaker, said: “It’s pretty aggressive [discounting] which is weather-related for most people.

“Shoppers haven’t had that sense of urgency. The last weekend should create more urgency and we’re expecting bigger trading on Satuday, Sunday and Monday. It should be a good, steady Christmas.”

A raft of retailers will extend their hours on Christmas Eve to gain last-gasp spend – Marks & Spencer will open 39 shops at 5am. Boots’ Oxford Street flagship will open until 9pm.

The White Company boss Will Kernan said: “I think there were expectations that because consumer sentiment is improving it would be a bumper Christmas but the reality is that, although confidence may be up, customers don’t have more money in their pockets.”

Iceland founder Malcolm Walker said trade has been tough, highlighting that the discounters are doing “amazingly well”.

Kantar data released this week showed 50.1% of UK households shopped in discounters Aldi or Lidl in the 12 weeks to December 8.

Single-price point retailers are also bullish. Poundland boss Jim McCarthy predicted a “record” Christmas, while 99p Stores commercial director Hussein Lalani expects a better Christmas than last.

Footfall rose sharply across all destinations last week, the Smart Steps/Retail Week Christmas Shopper Trends Tracker showed, as momentum builds.

Hamleys chief financial officer Alasdair Dunn said: “We’re expecting it to be a big weekend. The Regent Street store has been really busy and we’re trading it hard.” Game chief digital officer Ian Chambers said the retailer is benefiting from the release of both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles. “We’re three times up on where we were last year. It will be an epic weekend,” he said.

Some retailers are upbeat about Christmas falling on a Wednesday.

Morrisons chief executive Dalton Philips said: “The fact that the big day falls on a Wednesday is great for customers. Our busiest day will usually be December 23 and last year that fell on a Sunday where there is just six hours of trading.”

Online is expected to be a star performer over Christmas. John Lewis reported etail sales jumped 13.2% last week. Shop Direct forecast a “mobile Christmas” after more than half of its traffic came from mobile devices for the first time in the six weeks to December 7. Tesco expects more online shopping on Christmas Day than ever before. 

Retailers pray for Christmas miracle over final four days