Smart Consumer: Relax, have fun and don't let sales fever hit boiling point
Who doesn't love a bargain? There is nothing quite like the thrill of bagging an expensive thing of beauty for half the usual price.
We brag about a bargain for days, sometimes weeks, afterwards in much the same way as our Stone Age ancestors might have boasted about a tricky hunt for a prized bison that fed the whole tribe for several weeks.
In fact psychologists now say that shopping, in particular sales shopping, brings out our hunter gatherer instinct. Observe people on the opening day of the January sales; they'll be stalking, lunging and elbowing each other out of the way with all the ferocity of starving Neanderthals searching for a kill.
Even aside from our Stone-Age tendencies, several studies have shown that our ability to snag a bargain directly affects our sense of self-esteem. When we believe we've got something cheap, we feel proud, smart and competent. When we think we've paid too much, we feel angry and resentful.
It's an emotional roller-coaster a lot of sales shoppers will recognise. What seemed like a great bargain in the shop can disintegrate into an expensive mistake within hours of getting home.
A British survey late last year showed that women there spend £1bn (€1.12bn) in sales every year on clothes they never wear. Overall, about £4bn (€4.7bn) is spent in Britain in sales on items that are never used.
That's the trouble with a real bargain. It's annoyingly elusive.
Expert shoppers are full of good advice about how to bag a bargain at the sales. The trick, according to them, is to prepare with military-like precision. First write a list of 'must-have' items, followed by a list of 'would be nice' items. Check prices in advance and store opening times.
Plan a route. On the day of the sale rise at dawn, wear trainers and loose comfortable clothing all the better to try things on swiftly and easily.
Once operational, never, ever deviate from the agreed plan. If it isn't on the list, don't buy it.
There is some wisdom in such an approach but not everybody wants to make like an SAS commander just to get a cool pair of shoes on the cheap.
According to Beth Fitzpatrick of Dublin-based Access Counselling www.accesscounsel-ling.ie) taking a trip to the sales too seriously could also be a recipe for disaster. She has treated people with shopping addictions and believes the first thing we should all do is stand back and look at the psychology of sales.
"The TV ads start almost before Christmas these days and suddenly everyone's talking about going to the sales. People can feel that they're missing out, that there's something great out there for them. It can get very competitive. Someone you know is boasting about a great bargain they got and that just adds to the pressure," she says.
Research shows that the mere sight of those 'sales' and 'discounts' signs whets our appetite for bargain-hunting, in the same way that a picture of a sun-kissed beach in frosty January gets us dreaming of our summer holidays.
Then there's the short time-frame for a sale. We know if we don't buy something immediately it might not be there when we return. Again this encourages us to buy first and think later.
The longer we spend rummaging for a bargain the more we're likely to buy. We see the time and energy we've put into the process as wasted unless we purchase something.
"I think the more aware you are of the psychology of what's going on the better," says Fitzpatrick. "Try and keep some distance. It's so easy to get caught up in the moment. We all know we shouldn't buy things that don't fit but that's hard to remember when we're determined to find a bargain. We find something we really like but it's not in our size and think, sure I'll lose a bit of weight. It's really about trying to catch yourself in that instant. Walk away, think about it," she says.
Rather than taking a military approach, Fitzpatrick suggests looking at a trip to the sales as an adventure. "I think arranging to meet a good friend for lunch would be a nice idea. Maybe get to the shops a little early and have a browse. If something catches your eye, that's great. If it doesn't, enjoy the day regardless."
Sarah Rickard, a stylist with Irish Tatler magazine, won't be going to the sales. She spends the run up to Christmas in and out of the shops constantly.
"To be honest I couldn't face it," she says.
"I think as well a lot of the shops have been doing great promotions all year with major discount days. You have to wonder what else they'll have to offer in the January sales."
Like many other fashionistas, Rickman says that when clothes shopping in the sales it's best to stick to basic items rather than high-fashion purchases that are likely to date quickly.
"I'd suggest going to the more expensive stores where you wouldn't normally be able to afford to shop and looking for investment pieces. Jeans are always a good buy if they're on discount because they're timeless. Chunky knits are very popular and wearable. It's going to be cold for another few months."
Household items are another popular buy in the January sales. Being less subject to the whims of seasonal fashion there is far less potential to make an expensive mistake when buying sheets or towels for example.
As for electrical items, many stores offer what they call loss-leaders to attract shoppers. These are items that are substantially reduced. The stores hope that if people come into buy the loss-leader they'll also be tempted to buy other items with lesser discounts.
Above all, remember when shopping at the sales that a real bargain is a rarity. It can be hard to decide on the spot whether you will use something that's going for a great discount. Our emotions and our egos are at play. We feel under pressure and are being seduced by a lot of sophisticated marketing.
Perhaps the best approach is to relax and have fun. Sales shopping might feed into our hunter gatherer instinct but, at the risk of stating the obvious, we're not actually starving Neanderthals.