Shopping the Sales: 10 tips for happy bargain hunting

Pretty much everyone loves a good sale, and even now, when discounts happen year round and 'mid-season' sales are common on the high street, the post-Christmas sales - and to a lesser extent the summer sales - are still an event worth taking notice of.
Retail experts estimate that around 700,000 bargain hunters descend on London's West End on Boxing Day alone, and the sums of money spent are astronomical! If you're tempted to join the throngs of eager shoppers then here are my 10 top tips to help you get the most out of the experience:

Sales poster - Sale Now On!

1. Do your homework before you go

It pays to be prepared! In other words, check out the websites of brands and shops you particularly like and make a list of items you want to keep an eye out for. Sign up to the mailing list of favourite brands/shops - most will give you advance notice of sale dates and times, and some will give you access to sale previews and even further 'subscriber only' discounts. Toast sends out a handy brochure around a week before their semi-annual sales, giving details of sale prices and dates the sale will start, in their stores, online and by phone.
If you're really keen on an item or collection, then consider going to the store a day or two before the start of the sale to check what stock is still available, and to try on anything you particularly want. Having made your selection, this will allow you to simply 'grab and pay' on the day if the price is right!
If you do opt to do a pre-selection, check the tags carefully for clues as to what the discounted prices may be. A few years ago one store I like had pencilled the impending discount price discretely onto the corner of the tags...

2. Have an idea of what you're looking for

If you head to the sales just to 'see what's there' or 'look for a bargain' you'll more than likely blow your budget on lots of random items that you don't need and that don't go with anything else you own. Instead, have a think in advance about what it might actually make sense to buy.
For example:
  • Something you've had your eye on for ages but was just too expensive at full price
  • A great quality handbag or coat that won't date and will last you for years
  • Basics (t-shirts, underwear, sweaters) and work clothes
  • Gaps in your wardrobe - be honest with yourself: what do you need?
  • An outfit for upcoming events. Do you have a wedding or party coming up in the next few months?
  • Next season's trends. Many sale items will look dated as soon as the new season's stock is in the shops, but if you have a good eye it's possible to find items that will fit seamlessly with the coming season. Google 'what are the trends for [season]', and make a note of looks you like, concentrating on colours, prints (floral, graphic, stripes...) and especially silhouette (long, short, flowing, cropped...).

3. Give yourself a budget

If you haven't got much money, then why spend it on last season's remnants? Unless it's something you absolutely love, or an 'investment buy', consider saving your hard-earned cash for getting in early on the new season. And even if you have money to spend, it's worth having some kind of plan and figuring out how much you want to spend.
Of course, if you can afford it, it's fun to give yourself a little bit of 'mad money' for those glitter heels at 70% off, or that mini skirt you're not quite sure you'll even be brave enough to wear. Having a budget for these items will stop you blowing all your cash bags full of dubious things.

4. Dress simply and wear comfortable shoes

Don't go into battle without giving a bit of thought to the right equipment! Leggings or a pull-on skirt, and a simple t-shirt or sweater are probably the best clothes to wear if you'll be trying on a lot of things. It's best not to wear a dress if you're likely to be trying on separates, as it can be hard to judge, for example, how you look in a top,if you're only in underwear from the waist down!
Other tips are:
  • Leave the jewellery at home - it's a pain to take on and off, and if you don't you risk snagging delicate garments
  • Very importantly - you'll be doing lots of standing and traipsing around so do wear comfortable shoes. I like to wear slip-on shoes as tying and retying laces and pulling on and off boots gets to be a real bore
  • Leave clutches and handbags at home and take a shoulder or cross-body bag, which will leave both your hands free to rummage through the rails. If you're looking for something specific, consider taking along the right kind of footwear. For example, in many cases heels will give you a much better idea of how a dress hangs than bare feet
  • Finally, remember to take stamina (get a good night's sleep before you go), patience, good humour and your imagination - most stores put little or no effort into displaying the clothes at sale time, and that shapeless bit of black jersey draped clumsily over a hanger might be just perfect...

5. Get in early... or late

The early bird catches the worm, but those with the patience to wait till the end can get the best deals! Obviously the selection will be best on the first day of the sales, but after a week or two what's left often gets reduced further, and final reductions can be as much as 90%!
Similarly, the best time to shop is at the very beginning or end of the day. Lunchtimes are best avoided as queues - for the changing rooms and at the tills - can get particularly long.

6. Try things on

The queues for the changing rooms may be daunting, but an exchange or refund (even if it's possible - see no. 10) will require a return journey, and the queues at the customer service desk may be even worse.
Before heading to the changing rooms, however, check how many items you're permitted to take in at one time, and also check sizes on the clothing label as the size tag on the hanger may well be wrong - in the chaos of sale time, hangers can get swapped around, and it's terribly frustrating to get to your cubicle and then find you have brought the wrong size.

7. Check the condition of everything carefully

Goods get a real pummelling during the sales, so when you've found something you like, be sure to look it over thoroughly for tears, stains, missing buttons and damaged embellishments. Check seams, hems, linings and all zips and fastenings.

8. Ask yourself - Is it really a bargain?

Firstly, ask yourself why the item you're considering is in the sale. Are you lucky that there just happens to be one left in your size? Or are there rack upon rack of an item - a sure sign that it's a trend that is completely over, or was never popular in the first place.
Don't have your head turned by a label. Yes, if may be by [insert name of your favourite high end designer], and it may be ridiculously cheap, but do you actually like it? And if you do, then do you have anything to wear it with? Most women have a couple of items in their wardrobes, unworn with the tags still attached, and chances are they were impulse buys in the sales.
Most importantly, don't fool yourself about sizes. It may be lovely and just what you've always wanted, but if it's a size too big ('I'll have it altered...') or too small ('I'll lose weight...') you'll almost certainly never wear it. It will therefore be a complete waste of money. Leave if for someone who can really enjoy it.

9. And another question: Do you really want it?

In the heat of the moment, with people snapping up bargains all around you, it can be easy to make unrealistic and simply bad decisions. Pause for a moment and be honest with yourself:
  • Do you really LOVE this item?
  • Would it have caught your eye at full price?
  • Are you SURE you'll wear it?
  • What do you own already that you can wear it with?
  • Does the colour really suit you?
  • Do you have one (or more) similar items at home already? If yes, then do you really need another duplicate?
  • What are the washing instructions? For example, if it's hand wash or dry clean only, is that practical for your lifestyle?

And last but not least...

10. Note each store's exchange & returns policy

While many stores will let you change your mind and return your purchases for an exchange or refund, it's really important to understand that - at least in the UK - there is no legal requirement for them to do so (the rules are different if you buy online).
In practice, return and exchange policies vary from store to store, and it is quite legal for policies to be amended during sales. For example, many stores will offer exchanges or credit notes only (no refunds) on discounted goods. So if you're unsure what policy applies to your purchase(s) - ask!
And of course, if something you buy turns out to be faulty or damaged, and this was not obvious or clearly marked at the time you bought it, then you still have the right to return it for a full refund of the price you paid.
For any return or exchange you're likely to need proof of purchase, so it should go without saying that you need to keep all your receipts.

In a nutshell, if you don't need or love an item, then why buy it just because it has a discount - even a steep one? Be honest with yourself, and if in doubt put your purse away and save your money.

After all, the sales will be along again in 6 months!

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