There was a time when the queues for the winter sales would form outside some shops before Santa’s sleigh had landed back in the North Pole. The news on the night after Christmas would be full of stories of people who had snagged beds, bags or boots with eye-watering discounts attached.
Today when the likes of Brown Thomas or Arnotts or Next open their doors in the dawn’s early light, the numbers waiting to be admitted will most likely have numbered in the tens rather than the thousands as the brightness of the sale signs have dimmed through overuse.
“What is scarce is wonderful,” says retail expert Eddie Shanahan as he recalls the sales of times past when he marshalled the troops on the Arnotts shop floor. “Many years ago I had to close the shop on at least two occasions during the winter sales because there were too many people inside. We had a system in place to allow 50 people in only when 50 people had left. I can’t see that happening now.”
The reason is the ubiquity of sales seasons. Many retailers seem to be forever discounting, with the winter sales lasting until the daffodils bloom, only to be replaced by midseason sales that last until summer. Then the summer sales start followed by more midseason sales and Black Friday and then pre-Christmas sell-offs.
“The change has been gradual but impossible to ignore,” Shanahan says. “In recent years I have always gone into the sales on the first or second day and I have always been struck by how incredibly quiet it is. One of the reasons is the people who enjoy bargain hunting can do that every week of the year in some shape or form.”
But while the sales may not be as popular as they once were, there will still be people out and about today and for the rest of the week looking for bargains. And there will be bargains to be found – or at least products with deep discounts. Whether or not they represent value is debatable.
“I think it is important for consumers to remember there are three aspects to the sales,” Shanahan says. “First, what goes on sale is what did not sell during the season, so either consumers did not like it enough to buy at full price or maybe the buyers made a mistake and bought too much of it.”
He also notes many of the items for sale are “not going to be part of next year’s story so you need to be aware of that” and, he says, “the really big question is: do I really want it even if it is half-price? People should buy as they normally do, and assess need and value.”
But Shanahan is not dismissive of the sales; he says a shrewd shopper can find value. “If you are buying stuff on-trend you might end up with clothes you won’t wear again but if you are building up a wardrobe with classics then you can do well in the sales. If you go into a shop like Monaghans [the cashmere specialists on South Anne Street in Dublin] they might have a sale which will be small but there will be value there because they have very high-quality products that will endure.”
But, he says, people should remember “retailers are not charities and are giving away stuff for a reason, and it is not to make you happy. They are just trying to shift stock.”
Fashion stylist, broadcaster and influencer Justine King agrees. “I always tell people to think about whether or not they really want something or if they are just getting it because it is 60 per cent off. And remember that if something has a big discount, it means not everyone wants it.”
She worked in retail herself and admits she used to hate Christmas sales “because the shoppers tend to be a lot more cut-throat, and there aren’t so many smiles at the tills on St Stephen’s Day”.
King says timing is everything and suggests many keen bargain hunters will have started their winter sales shopping last night, while on their couches in their festive pyjamas.
“A lot of retailers go into sale on Christmas night, which is a bit depressing maybe, but that is when bargains are to be found,” she says.
She suggests people might consider playing chicken with the retailers in the days ahead, as the longer the sales last, the deeper the discounts get. “The downside to that is there will only be the smallest and the largest sizes left so if you are an average size, the chances of being able to find what you want as the sales progress diminishes.”
She cautions against people buying clothes that are too big with a view to having them resized. “You can buy bigger and get it tailored but before doing that it is worth finding out what it might cost as it can often work out cheaper to buy it at full price.”
Whatever about buying goods, returning them is also a key issue during the winter sales, and Shanahan cautions people to be aware of their rights. He claims some retailers can suspend their relaxed attitude to returns and exchanges when it comes to sale items.
“It is something else for people to be aware of,” he says. “While retailers might be happy to exchange goods bought in store during the year, they might not do that for the products sold in the sale, and as long as there is nothing wrong with the product, they don’t have to offer exchanges.
Customer experience expert Cathy Summers says it is really important that people check return policies before buying in the days ahead. “While many companies have customer-friendly returns policies, there is no legal requirement for them to do so, [and] it’s worth double checking that the returns policy is not waived during sale periods or on specially discounted items.”
She notes that when buying online, the rules are different. “If you buy online within the EU, there’s a 14-day cooling off period during which you can return goods or withdraw from services without having to give a reason and without incurring any penalty.”
Summers, chief executive of CX Company, believes many Irish companies “lag their international peers in both their approach to returns and the processes they put in place to handle them”.
She says in times past, customers have often approached retailers “with a sense of trepidation and very often that was well founded, with companies refusing to accept returns or doing so with bad grace”.
She said that retailers who handle their returns badly this season will pay the price in the months ahead. She points to a UK survey that found 84 per cent of online shoppers “will not purchase from a retailer again after a bad returns experience, so it really behoves companies to make the returns process as straightforward as possible. In fact, the best ones turn it into an opportunity to showcase their customer experience excellence.”
Top tips for sales
So, how to you get the best out of the sales? We have you covered.
1. Do you need it and will you get use from it? Before you buy anything in the sale ask yourself those questions. And then answer them honestly.
2. Before you hit the sales, establish what you need – a coat? A dress? A couch? – and then focus your energies on looking for the things on your list. Randomly walking through the shops is a sure-fire way to waste money.
3. Shop early in the sales – and early in the day too. This writer has been in Dublin city centre at 8am on St Stephen’s Day for work purposes on about 10 occasions and it is as calm at that time as it ever will be in the following days. If you go early you can be in and out quickly with minimum delay.
4. Alternatively, wait until the very end when shops are desperate to shift unwanted stock. This works only if you are more focused on the size of the discount rather than the size of the products.
5. Don’t focus on low-value stuff; concentrate on big-ticket items. The designer shoes, coats and handbags as well as the furniture and the tech cost more so the discounts are worth more. These items also last longer and are less likely to fall victim to the vagaries of fashion.
Know your rights
1. Signs that say things like “No money refunded” or “Sale goods not exchanged” are meaningless and possibly illegal. Whether you pay full price or get a discount of 95 per cent, you have the same rights. You have the right to expect a product to be of an acceptable standard, fit for its intended purpose and as advertised. If it is not, you are entitled to a repair, a replacement or a refund.
2. Many shops have decent returns policies and accept exchanges because you have changed your mind. However, they are under no legal obligation to do this, and many suspend these polices during sale periods.
3. If you are returning something bought in the sales because it is flawed, all you need is proof of purchase. That can take many forms, including a credit card receipt. It doesn’t have to be a store receipt.
4. When you are returning an item because you think it is faulty, do not automatically expect a refund. You have a right to a repair, a replacement or a refund, but the retailer gets to choose which is offered.
5. A shop cannot insist you deal directly with the manufacturer. As a consumer, your contract is always with the seller of the goods.
6. If the price of something on the shelf is less than the price eventually quoted at the till, you don’t have the right to buy the product at the lower price.