The January Sales: A Waste Of Time & Money?

The American author & poet,William Burroughs, once described “junk” as “The ideal product, the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk is necessary…The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy”. Although it would be somewhat harsh to apply the last part to the thousands of people who packed into Britain’s high street both before and after Christmas looking for cut-price items, many media commentators appear to agree with the overall gist of Burrough’s comment. The “Sunday Times” columnist India Knight , for example, was clearly mystified (in her article on 1st January) by the two thousand “crazy bargain hunters” who had camped all night outside Selfridges and then, on Boxing Day morning (27th December) “stampeded into the store like buffaloes, looking uncannily like barbarians about to pillage”. Who are these people, she asked and “what is wrong with them?” She couldn’t see the point in being  “crushed by the crowds, surrounded by shoving lunatics , all for the joy of scavenging for leftovers”. Her view that sales shopping is “self-delusion on an epic scale”, that it’s not cheap if you don’t need it, has been echoed by many other journalists.

The BBC’s “Watchdog” Consumer Advice website points out that it’s easy to get sucked into January spending that is basically unnecessary: “If you spy some ‘half price’ designer shoes (apparently reduced from £300 to £175) and impulse buy, it’s only a good deal if you really want them! If not, you’ve just ‘lost’ £175”. Felicity Hannah of “Yahoo! Finance” concedes  that her perceptions tend to be warped by 80% discounts and that she’s got tops she’s never worn but bought “because they were such good value”. She just sees the potential saving instead of assessing what the purchase is actually worth: “You have to make a real effort to look at whether you can afford the price”. Many of the shoppers themselves seem to have been simply caught up by the mood of the moment.  A female Polish chef interviewed by “The Guardian” at the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, east London, assumed that there must be good bargains available, “otherwise why would everyone be queueing?”. According to an IT worker from west London, there was sheer “madness” inside the centre. She hadn’t prepared a list of what she hoped to buy, so got into a “freestyle shopping frenzy”.

For anyone who is nonetheless determined to venture into the melee, “” emphasises that shops advertising a sale are required to abide by legislation enacted in May 2008: Before prices are reduced, the product must have been sold at a higher price for 28 consecutive days in that branch of the store. The original price must be clearly displayed along with the sale price: “A sign cannot just say ‘Sale: £20’ – it must add something like ‘Was £40, sale price £20’ ”. The problem with this, of course (as noted on “ is that “the practice of marking up an original price, making it look as though it’s been drastically reduced, has become common practice in many stores”. Only the regular clientele to a shop can be absolutely sure whether the tags on the clothes are accurate. In the Hawes & Curtis chain, for instance, York shirts currently being offered for £28 normally cost £89. Even when there’s no duplicity involved, the average customer with limited means will probably not linger for long in up-market shops displaying fashionable torn jeans reduced from £195 to “merely” £165. It’s also noticeable that in many of the stores with “Up To 70% Off” stickers on their front windows (once inside, that often changes to 50% or less for what Burroughs would consider to be “junk”, or in current parlance, “tat”) the best items are invariably in the “Non-Sale” sections.

A recent “Which” report on the main supermarkets concluded that “ some stores inflate prices for a few days, before promoting their products as being half-price or better for weeks afterwards”. This could apply similarly to some other parts of the retail sector. On the “Totally You Consulting” website, writer Sandra Collins recommends observing the following criteria when considering a purchase: “The garment must fit you; It must combine with at least three other items of clothing in your wardrobe; You will be able to wear it for at least three seasons, with adaptations; The colour should look great on you”. Meanwhile, both “Which” and the BBC’s “Watchdog” provide information about how to obtain a refund on (or exchange) something you have bought yourself or have received as a Christmas present. A fifth of respondents questioned by “Which” have stated that they are “frustrated by shops not making it clear that their returns policy is different while the sales are on”. They moreover feel that the returns policy should be displayed at the point of purchase and have complained about shop staff’s “lack of knowledge” regarding the return of faulty goods – a right, “Which” executive director Richard Lloyd has declared, that is equally valid for items bought in the sales. A list of “typical return times” is available on the BBC’s “Watchdog” website: Included are: Marks & Spencer (35 days), John Lewis (28 days), B&Q (45 days), Argos (30 days), Debenhams (usually 28 days – but extended to 31st January), Boots (Unlimited returns policy with a receipt). By law, faulty goods should be returned within a “reasonable time”, which in practice means having had sufficient opportunity “to take the product home, try it out and bring it back. It’s important to claim promptly”. The “Sale Of Goods Act 1979” stipulates that a product must be “As described (by the seller), of satisfactory quality and ‘fit for purpose’”. Even if you’ve lost the receipt, says “Watchdog”, a bank statement, credit card bill or cheque- book stub can constitute adequate proof of purchase.

Meanwhile, the UK media consensus is that, despite (or even because of) the “heavy discounting”, many well-known high street businesses – such as La Senza (lingerie), Dixons, Clinton Cards, HMV, Past Times (nostalgia gifts), Barratts Priceless (shoes), Hot Tuna (surfwear) – appear to be in severe financial straits. Their income in some cases is insufficient to cover either fixed overheads or debt repayments. Provisional figures released by “Experian Footfall” and quoted in the “Daily Telegraph” on 2nd January imply that the Boxing Day rush was “ a short-lived blip”. One phenomenon, though, slightly alleviating the pervading gloom is that “The Chinese are in town and spending as never before – 63% up over the past year (Robert Hardman in the “Daily Mail” on 2nd January). Investment group ‘CLSA Asia-Pacific’ analysts calculate that “by 2020 the Chinese will consume 44% of all the world’s luxury goods”. Where did their economic boom (at least in part) come from? Exporting cheap clothes to Europe, the USA – and to us here in the UK!




Filed under: Society | Posted on January 11th, 2012 by Colin D Gordon

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