LONDON — Christmas shopping in London is one of life's exquisite pleasures, an opulent feast for the senses.
Harrods' terra cotta brick exterior has been brightened up with 11,000 lights--they're white and don't blink. The famous store's windows are filled with shimmering gifts of crystal and gold.
On Regent Street, one of Britain's main shopping areas, a brass quartet endures the drizzle to play Christmas carols for throngs of shoppers.
In some shops, gracious saleswomen offer samples of aromatic Christmas goodies, like mince pie.
For the stores, business has picked up after a slow start, perhaps because of consumer uncertainty following the stock market crash in October.
"Overall the shop is doing very, very well," said Janie Papp, a spokeswoman for Harrods, who added that she had no sale figures. "We're having spectacular weekends."
Papp said sales of Christmas-related merchandise such as decorations and entertainment items were strong.
At Hamleys, which bills itself as the largest toy store in the world, things are going "very well indeed," said Julia Moody, a spokeswoman.
Old-fashioned things are proving the most popular, stores said.
"We have very definitely felt an overall trend toward traditional Christmas," Papp said. "That is the name of the game this year."
Harrods is selling such items as old-time English Christmas puddings, wrapped in muslin and tied with string. It has a range of Christmas crackers, a traditional British novelty that goes off like a firecracker when pulled apart. Inside are small presents and paper crowns.
Hamleys also is feeling the traditional trend.
"It tends to be more traditional things than anything else this year: dolls, teddy bears," Moody said.
And proving that it's more than just movies that lag in Britain, the hot-selling "new" toys are past American hits such as Trivial Pursuit and Questron learning toys.
"I can't make up my mind. I've been wandering around for two hours," said John Toole, a 44-year-old civil servant who, despite his indecision, had a toy London bus and a taxi in his shopping basket.
Meanwhile, the operative word at Liberty & Co. this year is Gothic.
In a promotion tied in with a chivalry exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts, Liberty has decorated its windows with stained glass.
Inside, in the Gothic Christmas Emporium, the store is selling pewter plates, stamped leather diaries, wooden chests and bubble glasswork.
And if you don't go for the gargoyle oven gloves, you can always go back upstairs and buy men's boxer shorts in a purple small-flower Liberty print.
Meanwhile, Fortnum & Mason, the famous food purveyor on Piccadilly, is selling its traditional wicker baskets stuffed with exotic treats: game pie, hare terrine and foie gras in ported aspic.
They also have oodles of caviar, smoked salmon, Stilton cheese and champagne--for those who can afford them.
Indeed, few Londoners are fortunate enough to shop at these elegant stores. Most are crowding Oxford Street, where they're hoping to get good prices on less expensive items. There, the decorations and displays seem modest by comparison.
Back at Harrods, an extra 2,000 seasonal employees have swelled the total work force to 6,000 to handle the Christmas crush.
Stores also have extended their hours--but in Britain late isn't really late.
Harrods, for example, is staying open only until 8 p.m., one hour later than a regular late night, and only on some nights. It never opens on Sundays.
British retailers don't wait until December to display Christmas decor. Harrods' tree-trimmings shop opened the second week in September.
On a more serious note, Christmas shopping in London is not without its dangers.
Concerns about fire safety in crowded stores have been heightened by the fire in the Kings Cross subway station last month, which left 31 people dead.
In addition, people haven't forgotten the Irish Republican Army terrorist bombing outside Harrods in 1983, which killed six people, and a seasonal police post outside the store serves as a reminder.
Asked about Harrods' security, Papp said: "We step it up."
London bobbies are out in force to control crowds, steering them with megaphones when they fail to queue, something Britons normally do quite well.
Christmas shopping in London seems less commercial than in the United States. But the hard sell comes after Christmas.
Harrods' January sale, one of the world's great merchandising events, begins Jan. 6.