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Savvy buyers out to bag bargains

It's out with the red-soled Louboutins and in with sensible shoes as Irish retailers celebrate their first increase in Christmas shopping in five years.

But it's a very gentle retail revival – and there is no sign of a boom on the horizon as more and more shops hit the "sale" button early to boost revenue.

As Dublin celebrated its busiest day of the year yesterday, the buzzwords were "promotion" and "sale" as fashion stores tried to shift stock by slashing prices.

"It's a good sign, some sectors are down but overall we're looking at a 1-3 per cent increase," said David Fitzsimons of Retail Excellence Ireland last night. "There are a lot of things going in our favour: the weather, the Budget wasn't as bad as people thought and even Christmas Day on a Tuesday is good, it gives us another shopping day.

"People are buying for function rather than fashion," he added.

According to its research, the Republic is also benefiting from shoppers coming South – in the hope of bargains and to avoid the riotous behaviour that has crippled retail in Belfast over the past few weeks because of the 'flags issue'.

One of the sectors that isn't showing a robust increase is ladies' fashion – particularly in the mid-price area.

"Most of the ladies' fashion stores have now gone into sale to help clear slow-moving stock," says the Retail Excellence Ireland research. "The Irish woman is more price-savvy at this time of year than her male counterpart and many are waiting for the big reductions after Christmas.

"Some stores, however, are concerned that there may not be much cash around after Christmas for the big spend.

"While the luxury and value ends of the market are performing robustly, the middle market is very challenging."

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Sales in department stores are up but there is no sign of buying fever. "Discounts and promotions are the driving force behind all transactions."

On the footwear front, sales are up but "customers are now buying sensible, function shoes and are generally passing up on the high-fashion products".

On menswear, they say that "the day of the big spend is long forgotten and the mid-price ranges are truly in vogue".

Toys, books, music and games are all down, hit by the recession and online sales.

But the "competitive" grocery sector is up, with some operators reporting stronger-than-normal sales of premium products.

"With customers being more value-conscious than ever before, they are responding to promotions, which in turn is driving greater promotional activity," says Retail Excellence Ireland.

"The clear winner in the promotional stakes is Dunnes Stores, who have invested in a significant campaign and have benefited from increased activity and market shares."

The research has also identified a number of trends, which they say influence consumers, especially in the run-up to Christmas.

The Budget is described as a "confidence crusher" especially when political leaks frighten off customers.

But next year, the Budget will be announced in September/October and is expected to have less impact on the vital Christmas sales.

The research has also found that cities and towns that have engaged in providing a better "consumer experience" – and Waterford is singled out – have benefited from increased sales.

Another noticeable trend is that of the "grey pound", with better-off older people taking their grandchildren shopping.

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