LONDON (AP) _ Harrods' annual January sale began with a frenzy on Wednesday - such a frenzy, in fact, that at least one eager shopper bought something he didn't really need: a large, round, gold-toned bathtub.

The proud new owner, a self-employed caterer, admitted that he did not have a house in which to put the tub. But it was quite a bargain, marked down to $247 from $2,470.

''I am looking for a place at the moment. It will certainly have to have a big bathroom. Perhaps I should build (a) house around the bath,'' said 24- year-old Gary Miller from Peterborough, England.

Thousands of other shoppers made a mad dash for bargains on slightly more practical items - such as fine china and cashmere coats and sweaters - when the store simultaneously opened its 11 doors for the first day of its sale, one of London's main shopping events.

''It's an institution,'' said Robert Hampson, merchandising director for Harrods.

His colleague Clive De Boer said: ''People have to get here and get it before anybody else has got it.''

Twenty security guards at Harrods' main entrance controlled the streams of men and women. Some shoppers sprinted up the escalators.

Many had clustered outside for hours in the early morning cold waiting for the 10-second countdown chorus, which was coordinated by short-wave radio.

The sale began at 9 a.m. and lasts until Jan. 31.

Three young men came dressed as a wolf, a dog and a rabbit, apparently hoping to win the attention of about 60 reporters and photographers covering the opening.

''I'm not sure whether they will allow animals in the store,'' the rabbit joked.

Harrods said it expected 200,000 shoppers on the first day this year. It also expected to surpass its sales record of last year, Hampson said.

Purchases were being rung up virtually non-stop on 705 cash registers, and the volume caused the store's main computer to break down temporarily.

After the store closed Wednesday night, Harrods spokesman Robert Bloch said in the 10 hours it was open it took in slightly over $1 million an hour for a total $10.2 million.

Harrods took in $8.82 million on the first day of its 1986 sale, its previous single-day record. It took in $56.7 million altogether in that sale.

Other London stores began their promotions right after Christmas. British retailers mark down their merchandise only twice a year, in January and in the summer.

Harrods hired 2,000 extra workers to help the 4,000 it regularly employs and beefed up its security staff to 100 for the latest event.

Many salespeople were dispatched to the popular china department. There, shoppers caused a great clink-and-clatter as they filled baskets with their choices of Wedgwood and Royal Doulton.

A 21-piece Doulton tea set, for example, was being offered at $130 vs. $217 regularly.

Fewer Americans probably will show up this year because Harrods didn't advertise in the United States, as it did in 1986.

But there were some in attendance on Day One.

Elaine Stulberg of Los Angeles, who had traveled to Rome with her son, Barry, said: ''We decided to come here for the sale. ... We just wanted to see what it was all about.''

There were no immediate takers for the flashiest of Harrods' sale items, a $287,000 diamond and emerald necklace and earring set being offered at half price.

In cashmere, men's overcoats that usually sell for $514 were priced at $257.

But among the early arrivals, a few didn't fit the traditional image of the Knightsbridge store's well-heeled clients.

Voirrey Cain, a 23-year-old student who arrived at 2 a.m. with a friend, said: ''This is all a bit of a joke. We're not queueing to buy anything in particular. We don't really have the money anyway.''