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The changing face of winter sales in Ireland

Pricewatch: Black Friday and online shopping have hit post-Christmas sales, but despites the changes people still love to bag a bargain

In times past, post-Christmas sales used to see massive queues forming outside the most popular department stores in Ireland, with those bagging the best of the bargains making the evening news.

But the days of Tony from Terenure making headlines for getting a €1,000 mattress for a tenner have long since been confined to the discount bin of history.

There will, of course, have been people standing in line outside big shops this morning, but if past years are anything to go by, the queues will have been small and populated only by diehards, with the reason for the shifting sales patterns both societal and practical.

In the dark days of 1980s winters, sales meant more because people had less, which meant the best of the bargains were eagerly sought out.


And back then sales didn’t start until December 27th at the earliest, a day when many would perhaps have found it easier to haul themselves out of bed at ridiculous o’clock to go stand outside Moon’s or Clerys or Guineys.

Another reason sale time is not what it once was is that many retailers are perpetually in sale now, so the red-and-white signs promising deals have lost a bit of their allure. In the run-up to Christmas 2023 some of the biggest retailers in the State were in sale a full week before the big day.

Then there is the looming presence of the internet, which has seen many shoppers with a keen eye on the price able to bag their bargains on their couch on Christmas Day, allowing them to avoid the maddening (or indeed madding) crowds of our city centres in the days to follow.

Technology has also impacted sales in another way. All the data swirling around in the world of ones and zeros makes it much easier for shops to buy more accurately now than ever before so they won’t be left with stock they need to shift as winter moves into spring.

But despite the changes people still love to bag a bargain, which is why the shops will be busy today and for the week ahead.

Brown Thomas outlets will be opening their doors from 10am on St Stephen’s Day – or at least most of them will. The outliers will be Dundrum and Blanchardstown, where the doors will open an hour earlier. Arnotts will also be opening from 10am to 7pm today. Ryan’s of Galway, and Shaw in Limerick open today, while the rest of Shaws stores open tomorrow. Avoca stores will also hold off until tomorrow.

Damian O’Reilly, a retail expert and TU Dublin academic, notes that sales in Ireland first began to change in the wake of the death of the Celtic Tiger.

“During the boom there was plenty of money around and there were no sales before Christmas,” he says. “There were sales after Christmas which were used to sell off excess stock. They were basically the traditional sales.”

But then the crash came in late 2007 and it came quickly, catching retailers off guard.

“They had orders in for up to a year in advance and those orders were already in production,” O’Reilly explains. “So they had no choice but to pay for the stock.”

But by December 2008 it was clear the money people had – or thought they had – had vanished and they were not out buying clothes in the anticipated volumes.

With concerns over cash flow and fears of being left with unseasonal stock mounting, pre-Christmas sales in 2008 were all over the place.

In some respects big sales represent failure, with much of the discounted stock there only because it did not sell during the season

And then along came Black Friday. The tradition is only 10 years old here, having been brought across the Atlantic by Asda in 2013.

People went mad for it that first year – quite literally with people fighting in the aisles for the cheapest of tellies – and the following year other retailers followed suit. Now it is a routine feature of the Irish retail landscape.

“The simple reason we didn’t have sales before Christmas in the past was because people wanted to buy or had to buy to have presents on Christmas Day,” explains O’Reilly. “So why would retailers put prices down when the demand was there?”

But Black Friday sales forced their hand and the landscape changed forever.

In some respects big sales represent failure, with much of the discounted stock there only because it did not sell during the season, either because shoppers did not like it that much or because buyers over-anticipated demand.

Sometimes it isn’t failure but planning, O’Reilly says, as more and more shops buy in stock specifically to put it on sale.

“Earlier in the year many will buy stock in liquidation sales to have more than just the existing lines that didn’t sell,” he says.

He believes we’re on the cusp of more change with artificial intelligence (AI) increasingly deployed “to do demand forecasting and supply-chain forecasting. Retailers are getting much better at forecasting demand, so there won’t be as much left-over stock.”

As to when to shop, O’Reilly says – obviously – shopping early in the sale season gives people the “largest array of discount options but prices do fall as the sale goes on”.

Jean McCabe is the head of Retail Excellence, the umbrella group representing thousands of shops across Ireland. She also owns Willow, a clothes shop in Ennis, Co Clare, and knows more about sales than most.

She acknowledges that pre-Christmas sales have “almost diminished” the post-Christmas ones, but says they still have a place, “especially in areas that are very seasonally driven such as fashion, footwear and accessories”.

When it comes to fashion, “it’s about clearing out the winter stock and making room for the spring-summer ranges because we’re starting a new season and we have to start fresh. For other categories that aren’t seasonal, they’re not as time bound, so it would be about customers looking for something new and offering something to drive their interest.”

McCabe says that as a retailer “it’s really important to have your stock looking fresh and renewed and looking new continuously for the customer”.

Like O’Reilly, she says AI is “going to drive forecasting and help predict trends and the volume you need to buy. It’s definitely driving efficiency, so therefore you’re less likely to be overstocked.”

But even in the age of AI there will still be sales because of variables even the most powerful computers and smartest algorithms won’t be able to predict.

She is talking about the weather.

“It influences so much in fashion,” McCabe notes. “So this year we had very warm weather in September and maybe the jumpers brought in didn’t move until November. That happens but AI is driving efficiencies, so not as much product is going into sale and there might be less heavy discounting if retailers are not having to shift volume. But I think they’ll always exist.”

Despite being in the business, she is not a big sale shopper herself. She likes “the experience of retail. I love to go into a nice store and to take it all in, so sales are not my forte, but the best way for a customer to make the most of sales is to be in early. Generally anything that’s on sale that is real value or is a real gem tends to go quickly.”

She has watched her customers for a long time and knows the canniest of them will have been in on Christmas Eve scoping out the bargains. “They will know if a jacket that they have their eye on is still there, it is likely to go into sale and will be in early on the days after Christmas.”

For most people, however, it might be too late for that.