Make a list, check your rights: How to make the most of the winter sales

Still value to be found in Black Friday era if you are organised about what you actually need

The very notion of a winter sale has been dramatically diluted in recent years with most retailers discounting much of their stock – by in excess of 50 per cent in many cases, if their promotional material is to be believed – in late November as part of the Black Friday phenomenon.

Confusingly, other retailers start their post-Christmas sales pre-Christmas and some have already started discounting their stock and as far back as two weeks before the big day, Pricewatch was wandering through the Ilac Centre and couldn’t help but notice all the sale signs in H&M, to pick just one retailer at random.

But in spite of all the shopping and changing – there is still a place in our world for the big winter sale. There will still be people standing in the cold outside Arnotts, Brown Thomas, the Dundrum Town Centre and all the other big retail outlets around the country early on St Stephen’s Day or on December 27th in search of bargains.

And while right now it remains the season to be jolly and all the songs on the radio are calling for peace on Earth and goodwill to all, just wait 72 hours or so and watch as all the goodwill in the world will be left at the door of shops across the country as the sales start in earnest. People will elbow each other out of the way in the mad scramble for Marc Jacobs bags.


But how can you be sure you stay ahead of the crowd and get the best bargains? We have tips that might help you make the most of the days ahead.

1. The best piece of advance we can give for people shopping in the sales is only ever buy what you need. Yes, yes, we know this sounds blindingly obvious – and we have probably said it before a million times – but it is amazing how often all of us forget this point. The very best way to be sales smart is to make sure you don’t lose the run of yourself just because stuff appears to be heavily discounted. It does not matter a jot how cheap something is, if you don’t need it or won’t wear it, you’re wasting your money. So before you hit the shops ask yourself what you need when it comes to clothes, shoes, appliances and all the rest. Don’t even consider buying anything else. You’ll thank us for this advice come the middle of January.

2. Don’t just make a mental list of the things you are in the market for – we have a great capacity for forgetting those lists. Put the list into your phone and then refer to it repeatedly throughout your day in the shops to help keep yourself in check.

3. The two best times to go sale shopping are early on the first day – Pricewatch has been in Dublin city centre at 8am on St Stephen’s Day for work purposes on more occasions than we care to remember and what is striking is the absence of long queues outside any shop before the doors open. That is not to say there is no one waiting, there is, but the number rarely climbs above 50. So time it right, get there just as the shops open and you can get all the things you need within an hour. The key, however, is to go home at that point. The next best time is when the sales period is drawing to a close. This is when the reductions are a lot more dramatic, and you can make bigger savings. This works best if what you’re after is unlikely to fly off the shelves or if you noticed a whole lot of the product you want in the sale on day one.

4. If you want to gain the most from the sales, ignore the cheap stuff and focus all your spending efforts on big-ticket items. When shopping for clothes, look out for shoes, coats and handbags. They cost a lot which means the discounts will be worth more and the items will last longer and be less likely to fall victim to the whims of fashion. You will also find big discounts on televisions and white goods. But again, only get the stuff if you actually need it.

Gift vouchers: A handy but potentially problematic last-minute present

In many ways vouchers are identical to cold hard cash – a gift most people hate giving at Christmas – which is why they are hugely popular at this time of year. They do serve as a handy last-minute present and it doesn’t get much more last minute than right now.

While they are not the most personal or thoughtful of gifts, vouchers will still be greeted with a bigger smile than some dodgy talcum powder/aftershave combo or crazy Christmas socks which is why more than 50 per cent of adults will give vouchers to someone as a present this year. The voucher business keeps growing and is now worth in excess of €500 million in Ireland each year.

But vouchers are not entirely problem-free, and people complaining about the expiry dates on many of them has become as much a part of Christmas as Elf. We nearly saw the end of such complaining this year as the Minister for Enterprise Heather Humphreys rolled out legislation over the summer which – had it become law – would have set a minimum expiry period of five years on all vouchers and prohibited the imposition of maintenance fees on cards that do not get used for more than a year.

It wasn’t to be. The legislation has been delayed so the area remains something of a free-for-all which may explain why as many as 20 per cent of vouchers are never redeemed.

But to make sure the vouchers you buy or get don’t go to waste there are some simple steps you can take.

1. Before you buy a voucher, check the terms and conditions, including the expiry dates – if any – and find out what happens to any unused part and whether it can be used in every outlet if the shop is part of a chain. Those terms and conditions may not be written on the card so you will most likely have to ask.

2. Where possible buy vouchers that can be used at more than one outlet or chain to protect against a single shop going bust. If that happens the person left holding the voucher becomes what is known as an unsecured creditor and the vouchers are effectively useless. If a company does go out of business and a liquidator is appointed to wind up the company, you must register your claim for the value of your voucher with the liquidator. Your claim will only be considered after all other creditors have been paid, such as banks and the shop’s staff.

3. Remember that if a gift voucher is lost, a shop doesn’t have to replace it. It’s just like losing cash so if you get one, take care of it.

4. But some decent retailers might help you out if a voucher is lost but you will need to ask for a receipt so you will have an easy way to prove you bought it. But don’t scream the place down if they don’t help you out – they are under no obligation to do so.

5. Don’t forget the maintenance fees some gift cards have – they can be as much as €3 a month, and can come into effect very soon after the card is bought. So if you give someone this type of gift card for €40, and they don’t use it for a year, maintenance charges at €3 a month will mean there is only €4 left on it after a year. It is more likely that such cards will come with dormancy fees which are only applied if the card is not used for a set period.

6. Make sure you tell the person you are giving the vouchers to use them as quickly as possible. It is the single best way of circumventing all the most ridiculous terms and conditions imposed by retailers and service providers.

Know your rights

Remember that even if you do ignore all of Pricewatch’s advice and do lose the run of yourself in the sales, you won’t lose your rights as a shopper and with that in mind, we have some things that you should bear in mind.

As sure as anything you will come across signs such as “No money refunded”, “Only credit notes given” or “Sale goods not exchanged” in the days ahead. These signs are meaningless and possibly illegal.

They are frequently put up, not out of malice, but because retailers themselves have a poor understanding of the law. It doesn’t matter if you pay full price or get a discount of 90 per cent on a product, you have the right to expect it to be of an acceptable standard, fit for its intended purpose and as advertised. If it’s not, you will be entitled to a repair, a replacement or a refund – despite what the signs might say.

Do bear in mind, however, that many shops that have generous returns policies, will suspend them in sale periods and that is their right. And to be honest, perfectly understandable. If they have managed to flog you a three-piece silver suit, they cannot be expected to take it back just because you have changed your mind.

If you are returning something you have bought in the sales – because it is in some way flawed, not because it is a silver suit and you are suffering from buyer’s remorse, remember that you do not need a store receipt. Legally, all that is required is proof of purchase. That can take many forms, including credit card receipts or bill, or a cheque stub.

If you return an item because you think it is faulty, remember that a shop assistant or store manager is not really qualified to assess that fault and dismiss it. If any retailer tries to do that, you have the right to insist the product is returned to the manufacturer, where people are better-placed to assess the cause of flaws.

While you can make a shop send a product back to the manufacturer, they cannot insist that you deal directly with the manufacturer. As a consumer, your contract is always with the seller of the goods, although you are perfectly within your rights to go directly to the manufacturer with a problem if you so choose.

If the price of something on the shelf is less than the price eventually quoted at the till, a consumer does not have an automatic right to buy the product at the lower price.

The best deals

We asked Twitter users for the best bargains they have ever got in the sales. Here are just some of the responses.

I bought a long sleeved striped T-shirt in Penneys 10 yrs ago for €4. I still wear it and it’s still in great condition. It was full price, but based on cost per wear, best bargain ever. @anitambyrne

Gap t-shirt for 50c 8 years ago. Still perfect. @BamtElliott

Black leather Converse One Stars for £6 in TK Maxx. @yvetteshapiro

A christmas slab of Guinness for 20 quid, shur where would you be going? @LostyPete

Kids Ireland football kits in Elverys, 10 quid for top and shorts. @MeatBadness

I was happy to get the snazzy smelling Lenor for €4 instead of €6.25 Does that count? @shamac12

TK maxx sale, Boss suit for 100 and it fitted perfectly. Unfortunately all my trips since have been (understandably) disappointing. @garogorman

Louboutins in a Filene’s Basement for $50. @lainey316

A Jil Sander jacket & trouser suit reduced to 250 quid…from £900. @HelenORahilly

I got a Magee Prince of Wales check suit in a sale in the factory shop in Donegal. Reduced from €800 to €100, and a further 25 per cent off. €75 for a killer tin. @TheKavOfficial

Supertramp Crime of the Century Album for £1.50. The lady thought it was a single and I neglected to correct her. @rafferty_paul

Happy reader stories

We spend much of the year highlighting the woes of readers and – where possible – intervening to try to bring problems which sometimes seem intractable to a resolution. While we are always delighted to be able to help, we never cease to be amazed at how easy it can be for us to fix difficulties that readers have spent months trying to resolve without success.

This is not because we have superpowers or any better at picking up the phone or sending emails. It is, simply, because companies hate bad press and they will act pretty sharpish to counter it. So when The Irish Times – or Ray D'Arcy or Liveline – comes calling companies do what they should have been doing from the start and they take their customers' concerns seriously.

This should not be how it is. People should not have to come to us to resolve problems that can be fixed in a heartbeat if the will is there. But it is Christmas and the season to be jolly so we figured that rather than highlight the ways in which companies have let their customers down, we would draw attention to some of the good news stories we have heard. Normal service will be resumed in the new year.

A reader called Helen, two friends and five children travelled from Dublin to London on a Friday morning in December on the 8.45am flight. “We checked in at the airport and were given our boarding cards and told our flight was boarding at 8.05am from gate 204,” her mail says. “We duly had some breakfast and made our way down to the gate in plenty of time.”

The group were travelling to London to “see the sights, shop and most importantly do the Harry Potter studio tour so as you can imagine, there was great excitement and lots of chatter going on!”

As they were queuing for their gate Helen noticed that the sign said Amsterdam. "I wasn't too fazed as 204 was printed on our tickets. I asked the person checking the tickets who told me the gate had been changed. Panic ensued as we checked the monitor to see 'Gate closed' flashing red for our flight and a mad dash akin to the Home Alone airport scene ensued as the eight of us ran like lunatics down to the new gate."

When they got to the right gate it was closed “and our hearts sank. But the BA check-in person couldn’t have been nicer and let us through. As we walked down the gangway two stewards were waiting for us and I thought we were in for a telling off but no, as we approached they said: ‘We hear you have five kids with you, would they like to meet the captain and see the cockpit?’. We were absolutely blown away with how lovely and friendly all the staff on this flight were, the stewards and the two pilots who spent a good 10-15 mins with the kids in the cockpit. Friendly, personable, professional and kind they really made the start of our trip!”

“You have been barking on about health insurance and shopping around,” starts a mail from Dublin reader called Kieran. “I’ve just taken your advice and will save €60 per month by internal shopping around,” he continues. He challenged his existing insurers Irish Life “to come up with something more cost effective. And they did.”

Rachel sent us a mail with both the good and the bad but she asked that “the positive part be acknowledged”.

She was at an event in Croke Park recently and she noticed that there was an obstruction across the entrance hallway. As the delegates were going into the event the company who were organising the summit (she has identified them but we are leaving their name out because it is the season of goodwill and everything) alerted people to the potential danger. “It was a thick lump of electrical wires with a block over them, so it was a very heavy piece of kit,” Rachel says.

After she had attended all the presentations that were useful she started making her way out “along with a good few other people. I didn’t see the obstruction walking down the hallway as there were people directly in front of me obscuring my line of sight. However, there were at least six of the conference organiser’s people standing around and none of them made an effort to remind people of the obstruction. I hit the block very hard with my right foot and felt excruciating pain.

“I’d had a hip operation last year and was only just back to proper fitness and able to ride my bike again before this accident happened. The pain was so bad I clutched onto the high counter that was at one side.”

One of the organiser’s team asked if she was alright and Rachel asked her if she could get a taxi. “I had intended to walk to the Luas, but I knew my leg was too badly injured for that. I know I probably should have made a fuss at that point but I was so embarrassed to stumble like that in front of a gang of much younger people I just wanted to get out. I was directed towards the reception area which was about 20 yards away and down some steps. I had to hold onto the tables at the side to make my way there. The young lady at reception was part of the Croke Park staff and couldn’t have been more helpful and genuinely concerned.”

The following day someone from Croke Park got in touch to see how Rachel was. “She followed it up with a phone call – again very genuine and kind. It has resulted in them paying for two lots of physiotherapy which has helped, but the concern and professional way I was treated was really the best bit of the whole experience – and very much appreciated It was a bit of seasonal kindness in amongst the bad and an appreciation from me of how much difference it can make just to be decent to people.”

Gerard got in touch to highlight “the guys in Marks & Spencer in Heuston Station”. He got an early train to Cork and before he boarded the train dropped into the small M&S in the station to buy himself a bottle of water. “In my tired state I walked off without my wallet leaving it on the counter,” he says. “They went out of their way to find a way to contact me and my fiancé was able to collect it for me. It would have been easy for it to vanish. Nice to see there’s good people out there!”

A mail from Ruth starts by saying that Pricewatch has had “a lot of negative feedback about Aer Lingus lately. However I want to compliment them!” She flew with to Hamburg with the airline recently “and on the return journey I was feeling a little unwell mainly due to not eating. The cabin crew noticed immediately and offered chocolate, custard creams and water (at no cost!!),” she says.

They continued to check on her regularly throughout the flight. “Credit where it’s due and Michelle and Melissa deserve credit.”

Next up is Catherine who wanted to let us know of a good experience she had recently. “As I am due to go for a medical procedure soon my current insurer advised me to contact my previous insurer to check I had cover from that period,” she writes.

So she rang Laya Healthcare and pressed 1 as the automated system advised her to do. “I got through to a lady from, I think, sales in a couple of seconds. She checked my details, checked and verified the whole thing in a couple of seconds more and planned to send confirmation by email. I was absolutely delighted, with the answer and also not used to call centres being so fast!”

Then there is Róisín who ordered a dress online from Oasis. For whatever reason, it “went to a random house, never to be found again”. That, however, wasn’t the end of the story. “Oasis gave me an immediate refund and no quibbles and all via online chat. I was all set for the battle but no need. Bravo Oasis.”

Nikki wanted us to give a shout out to the “lovely people in The Johnstown Estate Hotel in Enfield.” She says they took drinks off the bill as there was “a massive delay with the food order. None of us complained, they just offered, a really welcome gesture.”