Conor Pope's ultimate guide to the Christmas sales - tips, deals and your rights
Many shops have lost the ability to retail, and have replaced it with deep discounting
We have said this before and we will say it again, something is only ever worth buying in the sales if you actually need it and will get real use out of it
This year’s winter sales period has been shortened by two weeks as a result of Government intervention aimed at helping small and medium businesses thrive.
The move means all winter sales will not start until January 2nd, and can only last a maximum of four weeks. The strictly- imposed rules also mean there can be only one other sales period in 2020, and that, like the post-Christmas sales, can only last four weeks.
France. Now that is a country where sales are very tightly regulated to protect smaller retailers who struggle to compete with the internet and big multinational fast-fashion chains that can buy in bulk and offer deep discounts almost year round if allowed to better lure people through their doors.
It is a lot more laissez faire in this part of the world, and the very notion of a winter sale has been dramatically distorted in recent years.
Irish retailers and overseas retailers that dominate our town centres and the centres out of town seem to be forever in sale. The winter sales last until spring, just ahead of the start of the mid-season sales, which are followed by the summer sales and then more mid-season sales. Then there are the Black Friday sales, followed by the pre-Christmas sales, before we hit the post-Christmas winter sales again.
Sale signs are being prominently displayed in windows in all our cities’ main streets. The season of goodwill has been forgotten by many as antsy shoppers elbow each other out of the way in the race to get at the bargain-basement frocks, trousers, shoes and tops.
But not everyone is convinced that we are better off as a result of all the sales.
Retail expert Eddie Shanahan says the era of the perpetual sale is not doing us any favours, and is as a result of a lose of expertise in the retail sector.
He suggests that it began before the start of the recession when the country was “dramatically over-shopped”. He says all sorts of people who had nothing in common but a lack of retail experience began opening shops of all kinds.
“Then the pressure came on, and they found themselves overstocked. And the only way to stay open was to have sales and give away their margins at times that were traditionally when they could expect the best trading, particularly in the run-up to Christmas.”
The early sales in some shops put pressure on other retailers to follow suit, and suddenly the dominos started falling. And they have kept falling.
He says the “art of retail has been damaged” in recent years, and many of those in the business have lost the ability to offer real service.
“It is not all about price, and I think the bigger challenge in retail is customer service. But I don’t think many retailers nowadays are equipped to meet that challenge.”
In the run-up to Christmas, Shanahan carried out a quiet experiment in Dublin. He went into more than 40 shops in the city centre on a single day, and only once did a member of staff say good morning to him or otherwise acknowledge his existence as he came into their shop.
“A lot of staff today are on zero-hour contracts, and don’t give a monkeys about customer service. They don’t have ability to upsell either. And you have to remember upselling is really an offer of help
“Too many shops have lost the ability to retail, and in many instances they have replaced it by deep discounting. And discounting is nothing if it is not desperation because you are giving away your profits. It is the last resort of people who don’t really understand how retailing works.”
Shanahan also doubts that perpetual sales are what consumers actually want anymore.
“We are living in an era where sustainability is the buzz word, and when it comes to sustainability the most important thing is to buy better. We have to stop buying discounted rubbish.”
He suggests that much of the stock that will be on sale in the days and weeks ahead is “a mistake”.
It is either evidence of a mistake by retail buyers who over-estimated the level of demand for certain lines or by manufacturers who overproduced stock and find themselves forced to sell it at a deep discount to retailers, who decide to sell it at full price for a couple of weeks before a sale period kicks in so they can reduce the price and create the impression they are offering bargains galore.
“We have to look at the big picture. If consumers are more concerned about sustainability they’re going to switch off buying stuff and it won’t matter what the price is. Value is not simply about price, and the clever retailer knows that.”
JP Kennedy of Retail Excellence Ireland says too many periods of deep discounting have been putting enormous pressure on many retailers.
“As a result of the recession a lot of retailers were panicked and were much quicker to go into sale, and that created an expectation amongst many consumers.”
He believes the era of the perpetual sale “makes it very difficult for smaller and medium-size Irish retailers to have a sustainable business”, and says that when he talks to members of the retail umbrella group “many of them say they won’t be feeling very happy over this Christmas”.
He expresses concern that too many sales and too much discounting could lead to a “hollowing out of towns and villages because of what is an unsustainable playing field. If you have five or six sales periods a year it can damage retailers on the cusp of sustainability.”
He says ultimately consumers will have to decide what they actually want. Do they want cheaper clothes offered to them six or seven times a year or would they rather sustainable businesses were allowed to operate in a more normal business environment?
Maybe it is time the Government here stepped in and mimicked what is happening in France.
BEST TIPS BEFORE YOU GO SHOPPING
In spite all the shopping and the changing that extended periods of deep discounting brings, the big winter sale still remains a big deal for many thousands of people in Ireland.
It doesn’t really matter that the Dundrum Town Centre or Arnotts or BTs and all the rest of the retailing giants last had a sale three long weeks ago, there will still be people hauling themselves out of bed at ridiculous o-clock of the morning just so they can stand in queues in the cold and rain to get a half-price mattress or fridge.
But how can you be sure you stay ahead of the crowd, bag the best bargains and don’t end up with a chronic case of buyer’s remorse? By following our tips to help you make the most of the days ahead, that’s how.
1. We have said this before and we will say it again, something is only ever worth buying in the sales if you actually need it and will get real use out of it. That gold Prada suit might be down from €2,000 to €400, but if you don’t need a gold Prada suit or won’t wear a gold Prada suit or if the gold Prada suit is two sizes too big and makes you look ridiculous, then you are wasting your money buying it no matter what the size of the discount. End of story. So before you spontaneously buy anything in the sale ask yourself if you need it and if you will wear it. If there is even the slightest doubt, leave it back.
2. The next best piece of advice we can give you before you go shopping is to suggest you forget all about spontaneity. Before you hit the shops ask yourself a hard question. What do you actually need when it comes to clothes, shoes, appliances and all the rest. Don’t even consider buying things that you don’t need. You’ll thank us for this advice come the middle of January when you are not being haunted by your credit card bills.
3. When it comes to the list you are making, don’t leave it in your head. Write it down. List all the things you are in the market for. Put the list into your phone, and then refer to it repeatedly throughout your day in the shops to help keep yourself in check. Unless shoes are on the list then don’t buy the shoes.
4. By our reckoning there are two really good times to shop in the sales – and neither of them are without problems. If you have the stomach for it go shopping early on the first day but not too early. Pricewatch has been in Dublin city centre at 8am on St Stephen’s Day for work purposes on more than half a dozen occasions over the last decade or so, and while the bargains change there has been one constant. That is the absence of queues. Don’t get us wrong. There are some people standing in line outside the big retailers. But the numbers have never – at least in our experience – climbed above 50. So time it right, get there just as the shops open, and you can get all the things you need within an hour.
5. If you shop early, go home early. Do not hang around the shops as the morning of December 26th turns into the afternoon. The crowds become hideously unmanageable, and the whole experience will be very unpleasant. So shop like a ninja, buy what you need, and then get the hell out of Dodge.
6. The next best time is when the sales period is drawing to a close. At the tail-end of the sale the reductions become a whole lot more dramatic as retailers grow more desperate to shift their unwanted stock, so this is where you can make the best savings. This plan works best if what you’re after is unlikely to fly off the shelves or if you noticed a whole lot of the product you want in the sale on day one. It is also ideal for somewhat oddly-shaped folk as irregular-sized clothes are the slowest to sell.
7. The best way to find the best value in the sales is to ignore the low-value stuff and concentrate all your spending on big-ticket items. We’re talking about for shoes, fancy coats and pricey handbags. They always cost more so the discounts will be worth more, and the items will last longer and be less likely to fall victim to the whims of fashion. You will also find big discounts on televisions and white goods. But, again, only get the stuff if you actually need it.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
The good news is that even if you ignore all our advice and do lose the run of yourself in the sales in the days ahead, you won’t lose your rights as a shopper. But do you know what those rights are?
Over the course of the coming days there is a good chance you will come across signs which say things like “No money refunded”, “Only credit notes given” or “Sale goods not exchanged”.
These signs are meaningless, and very possibly illegal. Retailers often put them up not because they are trying to pull the wool over your eyers, but because they themselves have a poor understanding of the law and the protections it offers shoppers.
The thing is it really doesn’t matter if you pay full price or get a discount of 95 per cent on something you buy in a shop, you still have the exactly the same rights as a consumer.
That is to say you have the right to expect a product to be of an acceptable standard, fit for its intended purpose and as advertised. If it’s not you will be entitled to a repair, a replacement or a refund – despite what any signs might say.
It is important to remember that some of the things you take for granted at other times of the year will change during a sale period. A lot of good shops have very generous returns policies and allow you to exchange goods within a set time frame of purchase simply because you have changed your mind. Sometimes they will give you a credit note, sometimes they will give you your cash back. They are under absolutely no legal obligation to do either.
Many retailers are likely to suspend those kind-hearted polices during sale periods – and that is their right – so don’t be shouting at shop assistants if they refuse to entertain your refund requests over the next couple of weeks.
The change in policy is is perfectly understandable. If a shop has managed to flog you the three-piece tuxedo with a leopard print trim that has been taking up space on its racks since the 1970s, then it cannot be expected to take it back just because you have changed your mind and seen sense.
If you are returning something bought in the sales because it is in some way flawed – and not because it is a three-piece tuxedo with a leopard print trim and you are suffering from a serious case of buyer’s remorse – remember you do not need a store receipt. Legally all that is required is proof of purchase. That can take many forms, including credit card receipts or bill, or a cheque stub. Although we can’t imagine that many people pay for anything by cheque anymore.
When you are returning an item because you think it is faulty make sure you go into the shop armed with the facts. You cannot expect it to give you a refund and you generally speaking have no right to one.
You have a right to a repair, a replacement or a refund, but the retailer gets to chose which of them is offered.
Always stay calm and stand your ground when discussing a problem, and remember that a shop assistant or store manager is not qualified to assess a fault and dismiss it. If they try to to do that you have the right to insist the product is returned to the manufacturer, where people are better placed to assess the cause of flaws.
While you can make a shop send a product back to the manufacturer, it cannot insist that you deal directly with the manufacturer. As a consumer your contract is always with the seller of the goods, although you are perfectly within your rights to go directly to the manufacturer with a problem if you so choose.
If the price of something on the shelf is less than the price eventually quoted at the till, a consumer does not have an automatic right to buy the product at the lower price. The price on the shelf is what is known as an invitation to treat, and no contract is actually in place until money changes hands.
THE BEST DEALS
We asked Twitter users for the best – and the worst - bargains they have ever got in the sales. Here are just some of the responses.
Set of 4 LeCrueset pots in Arnotts. Think they were priced incorrectly at £105 for all of them. Still going strong 20 years later. Niamh Geraghty
I bought a DKNY dress for €210 thinking it was a real bargain but I’ve only worn it once because I look like something out of the Handmaid’s Tale. Mischa McInerney
Pair of Balenciaga shoes down from €650 to €110, one pair left and in my size (42)shhhh?? love them but then bought another pair of shoes as I hit such a bargain and the second pair kill my feet, so lesson learned quit while your ahead georginagethin
A Jean Muir jumper for £50 years ago. I wore it for years and years and loved it. Irene Winters
I bought a Di Longhi Cafe Corsa bean to cup coffee machine for around €125 on St Stephen’s Day in Argos and I have used it every day since. There normally over €350. Always wondered if it was a pricing error Brian Byrne
Dyson Hoover reduced by €300 and paid for with gift vouchers. Best time saver ever. Well worth the cost if you can afford it. Geraldine D’Arcy
Fancy sonic toothbrushes at Boots, €99 each down from €399 – saving a huge €600 Anna Pas
€50 for a full Burberry paddy cap during the good times. Thought I was ridey. I actually looked like a knob Mary Johnson
Half price leather jacket. 12 years later it still gets a wear. Martina Mangan
A Helly Hansen coat down to €110 from €150 the week previous – getting a third winter out of it and still looking and working good. Colette Carroll
A John Rocha mac. Got it on sale, heading into year 12 with it and it’s still perfect. Kacy Star
Hard to beat reductions of 70 per cent @MonsoonUK when they have sales. Picked up some great bargains there over the years. Emma Ryan
HAPPY READER STORIES
For 51 weeks a year we highlight the woes of readers and where possible try and right wrongs which previously may have seemed intractable. Sometimes righting those wrongs takes us seconds.
That is not because we or any better at picking up the phone or sending emails than our readers, it is because companies hate bad press and they will act fast to counter it. So when The Irish Times calls, companies do what they should have been doing from the start and they take their customers’ concerns seriously.Of course, people should not have to come to us to help them with what can be so easily fixed when the will is there.
But seeing as it is Christmas we thought we’d leave all the rancour behind and highlight the good news stories we have head from readers in recent days. Sadly there are not a lot of them.
At a recent meeting in London, Adam Grennan was given a large iced cake to mark his retirement. The plan was to share it with colleagues at the end of the meeting. Unfortunately, due to a late finish, that didn’t happen, and I was left with the option of either donating it to someone else, which was unlikely given it was decorated with several rather embarrassing photographs of me, or taking it back on the flight to Dublin the following morning. While I was mulling this over a colleague found the large box the cake arrived in, and after carefully repackaging it, reassured me that getting it home “would be no trouble”.
Next morning my edible companion and I stood in front of the BA desk in London City Airport.
“Excuse me, do you think I could take this on as hand luggage,” I said, holding up the rather large cardboard box. “I’m a bit concerned that it might not fit in the overhead luggage compartment.”
“What is it, sir?”
“It’s a cake…to celebrate my retirement.”
“You can take it on if it fits in that,” he said, pointing to a contraption used to check the size of a case.
Sadly, it didn’t. It sat on top. I thought of taking it out of the box and cutting it into bite-sized chunks. However, a small queue was now starting to form behind me, and I’m not sure any of my fellow passengers would have been happy to wait in line as I performed surgery on the contents of my baggage.
“Could I check it in?” I asked.
After consulting my booking, he said: “You haven’t paid for checked-in luggage, sir. If you’d like to check it in now it will cost £65.”
“£65,” I said. “At that rate I’d prefer you took it home and ate it.”
At this point the man’s supervisor lent in close to remind him that the charge went up the previous day, and a late baggage check was now £75.
I began to panic and wondered if perhaps I could just abandon it. Under pressure the best ruse I could come up with was to pay a visit to the gents and leave it behind in one of the cubicles. However, then I thought, this is London and as we’re frequently reminded, unclaimed luggage will be destroyed if left unattended. I had visions of the bomb squad arriving and sponge cake flying in all directions. Besides, I could hardly deny that I was the owner seeing that there were multiple photographs of me stuck to the top.
“Just take it up to security,” the BA man said as his supervisor walked away. “If you get through there then ask at the boarding gate. They might check it in for free.”
I clambered up the stairs, into the security area and bundled everything I had into the trays. All the usual stuff and one rather large cream sponge cake. I watched as the whole lot was swallowed up by the security scanner.
Out came my PC, case and jacket, but no sign of my outsized friend. Moments later one of the security team emerged holding up a large battered, and all too familiar looking, box.
Unamused, she asked, “What’s this?”
“A cake, a retirement present,” I said.
“It got stuck in our scanner,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said, as I grabbed it, perhaps a little quicker than I should from a security agent, and sprinted down to the boarding gate and straight up to the young BA attendant standing there.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Your colleague downstairs suggested you might be able to check this in for me.”
“What is it?” he said.
Weary but determined not to be thwarted at this stage, I told my story for the third time. He smiled, as if he knew I was coming, and then, to my complete surprise, passed the baton on.
“You don’t want to check that in. Take it on as hand luggage. Ask the cabin staff if they would let you put it on the seat next to you.”
I walked out and up the steps to the plane, where I explained my case to yet another BA staff member.
Smiling, he said: “Just pop it down in front of the seat beside you. We’re not all that busy this morning.”
Later that day my family and I managed to do what I should have done 24 hours earlier – eat the damn thing… and very nice it was too. Thanks BA!