STORES throughout the region are bracing themselves for a record-breaking start to the sales this morning, as the great British spending spree shows no signs of slowing down.

After the most successful Christmas in recent years, shops are expecting bargain hunters back in droves.

But last night, shoppers were warned that the consumer boom means it is unlikely interest rates will fall any further as the economy stabilises. Rates are currently at their lowest for 40 years, triggering spending and encouraging consumers to take on debt.

Economist Catherine Prid-eaux, of Financial Spreads, said: "Our long-term view is that you are now likely to see a series of small rate increases. We have reached the bottom."

Canny North-Easterners, always on the lookout for a bargain, are buoyed by the fact that this has been the cheapest Christmas on record.

Almost before the last presents were unwrapped, thousands of people were out looking for bargains, but only a handful of the region's stores were open, among them Woolworths and electrical stores such as PC World, Comet, Currys and Dixons, where queues quickly formed.

The MetroCentre, the Cleveland Centre in Middlesbrough, and Darlington's Cornmill open today.

In other parts of the country the buying frenzy has already started.

Motorists in Manchester were queuing for more than half a mile just to get off the motorway and begin shopping at the Trafford Centre. Bosses inside the huge shopping centre said there had been queues forming for its 10,000 parking spaces since early morning.

At the St Enoch Centre in Glasgow, 35,000 shoppers had piled through the doors by noon.

A British Retail Consortium spokesman said: "We've been looking at prices cheaper this year than they were three years ago.

"There's no reason to believe that, when the sales happen, there won't be an extra layer of bargains on top of that."

Woolworths, in Darlington, reported "phenomenal" sales yesterday, with CDs and DVDs the biggest sellers.

Manager Brian Ryder is expecting to be just as busy today. He said last night: "It has been unbelievable. We had queues at the door this morning and it has never stopped.

"A lot of people have come into town not realising that there are only a few places open. They will be back tomorrow for the rest of the sales."

For shoppers who are desperate to flash their cash around the clock, the Next sale starts as early as 5am.

Marks & Spencer, in the MetroCentre, was so pleased with the success of its experiment to stay open until midnight in the run-up to Christmas that it is keeping the same hours every Thursday and Friday from tonight.

Shops opening today include Binns in Middlesbrough and Darlington, (8.30am-7pm), Debenhams in Middlesbrough and Stockton (8.30am-7pm), M&S in Middlesbrough (8am-8 pm), M&S in Stockton (9am-6pm) and Next in Middlesbrough (5am-7pm).