Cut-Price Britain: The Permanent Sales Saga

Anyone in Britain who hasn’t yet been to the sales had better hurry up. They all finish at the end of this month, so there’ll be no more reductions and prices will go back to normal. At least, that’s what the big stores want us to believe. It’s their way of persuading us to rush out to spend whatever cash we have left over from Christmas. Or if we don’t have any, to use our credit cards instead. Many people, though, didn’t even wait until the official starting date: 3.6 million spent £80 million on line on Christmas Day –even if that meant missing lunch and the Queen’s TV broadcast. Thousands of others queued up outside stores in Central London and around the UK from well before dawn on Boxing Day (so-called because it’s traditionally when the aristocracy give boxes of presents to their servants or the poor, not because it symbolises customers fighting for the same item).

During the initial stampede for the best bargains, John Lewis (Oxford Street) took in £1000 per minute and at  Brent Cross in North London 150,000 shoppers (collectively) spent £50,000 every hour. Where did all this money come from? Apparently, a lot of people had already sold off their Christmas presents (including some that hadn’t even been opened) on e-bay so they could go to the sales. Much of the ‘spending frenzy’ has been fuelled by the continuing ‘buy-now-worry-later’ approach which has sustained Britain’s ‘economic boom’ over the last 10 years (predicted to end in 2008).

There have admittedly been some good deals available: Decent jeans for £9.50 at Marks & Spencer and reasonable quality shirts for £10-£15 at Peter Jones. If, though, you’re not particularly keen on vicose or polyester and are concerned about what your new clothes will look like after a couple of times through the washing-machine, the choice is fairly limited. Many places seem to be offering ‘70% off’ until closer inspection reveals the words ‘up to’ in much smaller print. Unless you’ve checked  pre-sale (as some people do) the cost of the goods you are interested in purchasing,  there’s no way you can be sure if the apparent mark-down on the label is genuine or not. In upmarket stores like Harrods, the price of furniture, jewellery
and silverware still tends to be somewhat prohibitive except for the special clientele who can actually afford to live in the area. The  96-piece silver-plated cutlery set you may have been dreaming of is currently available via their website for ‘only’ £2000 (50% off).

The main pre-occupation now for the UK retail industry is what will happen after the sales. The Christmas period was bad for the electrical chain DSG (owners of Currys & PC World), poor for Sainsbury’s and down over 2% for Marks & Spencer (although  John Lewis-owned Waitrose did rather better). Authentic discounting of 70%-80% has inevitably severely hit profit margins. Gas & electricity train fares and even food will cost more. Many people will now have to concentrate on paying their bills, mortgages and credit card debts. The stores can’t manage just on income from tourists. They’ll have to keep  their prices down. Rather like those shops that  permanently advertise a ‘Closing Down Sale’ – but keep going.

Filed under: Society | Posted on January 1st, 2008 by Colin D Gordon

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