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The January and Boxing Day sales are dead. Long live the never-ending sales. But can you really make a saving? I’ve three tips to help you nab a bargain.

As a kid I remember how we’d get on the train to Bromley in South London (this was pre-Westfield, Bluewater and Lakeside) when the January sales started. It really was the main time of the year when you could get a bargain, or afford something that would normally be out of reach. But that’s all changed.

Every year the sales start earlier. What would have traditionally kicked off on 1st January, gradually moved to 26th December, More recently they’ve started online on Christmas Day, and some retailers will be starting them this week.

And that’s if they’ve even stopped. With Black Friday, flash sales and other promotions, it often feels like a sale is always on. And, if this is happening, is anything ever really at full price?

And the problem is if you’re tempted to buy simply because you think you’re saving money, there’s a good chance you’re just paying the going rate.

Here are my main frustrations:

The sales that never stop

On my deals and vouchers pages I often write about popular sales, and it’s surprising how many repeat themselves. Even John Lewis suffered this summer thanks to it’s “Never Knowingly Undersold” price matching policy under constant bombardment from sale after sale.

Constantly fluctuating prices

It’s difficult to judge the authenticity of sales as prices frequently fluctuate throughout the year. It’s rare for shops like Amazon to have a regular price, it’s always up and down. John Lewis is also particularly frustrating as its price matching policy can mean daily changes in the amount you pay.

You also need to watch out for prices going up just before the sale, “discounted” for a few days, then lowered again once the promotion is over. I’ve even seen examples where the item has been available at a far lower price for months before and after the “sale”.

Artificially inflated original prices

Worse is when the original price is inflated so you think you’re getting a bigger discount that you really are. This is the “Was” and “Now” bit of the label. TK Maxx is particularly bad at this.

Legally the product has to be sold at the higher price for a reasonable amount of time, but this only has to be in one shop somewhere. So it’s very likely it was never sold at the “was” price in that shop.

How to make sure you really are making a saving in the sales

Despite these frustrations, there are still savings to be made in the sales. It’s just rare you are getting a discount as high as the sticker promises.

So how do you tell the real deal from the dodgy marketing?  I’ve three top tips to help.

1. Look at price history

My favourite site for this is Camel Camel Camel which shows you how prices have changed on Amazon. Seeing as Amazon sells everything and often price matches other retailers, you get a really good picture of prices since the product was first listed. You can see also find out an average price.

2. Compare current prices

There are some great websites which help you compare prices against other shops. I like Idealo for white goods and electronics. Watch out for extra charges like shipping, but you’ll be able to get a sense of whether you can get it cheaper elsewhere.

3. Keep an eye on prices after you’ve bought it

If you buy something in the sales, particularly anything expensive, it’s worth seeing if prices drop in the days or weeks after. Some shops such as John Lewis have been known to match the lower price and refund the difference. Or if you haven’t used your purchase and it’s still in it’s packaging, you can always return it for a full refund and buy it elsewhere at the lower price.

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