IT'S THAT time of year again: people are flocking to shops hoping to snap up a few of the many bargains promised in the New Year sales. But when is a bargain really a bargain?
"Very occasionally," replies UMIST's Peter McGoldrick who, along with colleague Erica Betts, has just completed what is believed to be Europe's biggest study of consumer knowledge, attitudes and behaviour in seasonal sales.
He says; "Sales are a curious amalgam of a few genuine bargains; items bought in specially for the sale which are probably not bargains at all; and items for which the claimed original higher price was somewhat inflated in the first place."
The study, backed by the Economic and Social Research Council, reveals the extent to which consumers are either unaware of or misinformed about their rights as shoppers under consumer legislation. More than half of the 2,500 people surveyed did not realise that retailers could artificially raise their prices simply to then reduce them to make goods look like bargains. And only 7 per cent realised it was not illegal for retailers to have a "sale" all year round.
Professor McGoldrick says the findings also have worrying implications for the UK regulatory authorities. Only 4 per cent of those surveyed would report an infringement to the Trading Standards Authority. He says: "As the TSA relies heavily on shoppers' complaints for its information about breaches of the law, effective policing of retailers is severely hampered by consumers' lack of awareness. Securing successful prosecutions is therefore also extremely difficult."
The survey covered shoppers hunting for bargains during the summer sales of 1995 and the winter sales of 1995/96. Shopping centres targeted by UMIST researchers included Central Milton Keynes and Manchester Arndale Centre.
The research also looked at the psychology of "bagging a bargain" and cites the case of a Harrods "sale" shopper who was reported as being thrilled with a designer skirt reduced from Pounds 184 to Pounds 9. "Even if you give it away, it's worth it for Pounds 9," she said. Erica Betts says of this curious psychology: "The item is given away but the shopper still feels money has been saved. It would appear that some people can get more enjoyment from the price reduction than the product they actually carry home. They might as well just keep the sale tag and drop the bag's content off at the charity shop on the way home."
Such behaviour appears to be more prevalent than expected: half the shoppers interviewed admitted they were often unsure whether it was the product or the price reduction they like best.
Other findings include 72 per cent of respondents feeling clever paying less for an item than other shoppers had paid before the sale. Some 74 per cent of respondents reported experiencing great satisfaction in finding bargains before other shoppers and 65 per cent enjoyed boasting about large savings to friends and colleagues. Half of respondents believed that sales allowed them to "get one back" on the retailer. Fat chance.