LONDON: Conscious perhaps that the current economic chill presages the roughest Christmas ride yet experienced by British retailers in the twenty-first century, the sound of Jingle Bells, Ho-Ho-Ho's plus a flurry of fake and - thanks to global warming - improbable snowflakes inundated the UK's main TV channels over the weekend.

Among the nailbiting earlybirds are Tesco, Marks & Spencer, J Sainsbury, John Lewis and Next; although they were beaten to the start by Woolworths, Argos and Asda for whom Christmas seemingly began on Midsummer's Day.

According to Thomson Intermedia, combined advertising expenditure by Britain's top fifty retailers over the past three months was £530 million ($1.11bn; €755.73m) - a forty-one per cent increase on the same period in 2003,

Media buyers believe there is a substantial 'me too' element at play. Says MindShare's Steve Henderson: "What your competitors do is a massive driver of advertising, particularly in retail. However, it does mean prices are being hiked-up because companies are reacting to one another."

Whether the increased investment and dawn start will persuade Britons - Europe's most heavily indebted consumers, already bruised by the fallout from America's subprime morass - to unzip their purses and wallets remains to be seen.

Some observers believe Joe and Josie Public may be teeing-up for one last wild fling before the economic ice age begins.

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff