The great one-day sale scandal

They promise a tempting variety of electrical goods at bargain prices. People come away hundreds of pounds poorer, feeling angry and cheated. Jonathan Green investigates
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The Independent Culture
Bargain-hunters clamour outside the Four Feathers Youth Club in Marylebone, central London. Families from the Lisson Green council estate opposite are streaming over to join suited office workers and OAPs. "I'm gonna buy five CD players and then flog 'em," yammers an 18-year-old in a fluorescent anorak. They re-read the fliers that promise electrical goods made by reputable manufacturers at bargain prices - Sega Megadrives for £30, Casio pocket televisions and CD players for £5.

An hour later, the doors of the musty hall are flung open.This is a "liquidation" sale by the EEC Home Shopping Club. David Starr, aged about 50, is on a platform surrounded by CD players, cameras and every conceivable household appliance. People elbow their way to the front, and are eased back by musclebound men in polo shirts.

With a quickfire spiel and a cache of threadbare Bernard Manning jokes, Starr offers a smartly dressed man the chance to gamble £20 for "whatever is on my mind". A toaster, clock radio and video tapes are laid at his feet. For just £5, David offers to do the same for everybody else. The mood reaches fever pitch. Helpers collect notes in baskets and replace them with cardboard receipts. Each is in turn replaced with a travel clock.

The atmosphere stiffens and a Turkish man leaves the hall in disgust. "Don't be disappointed - only those who bought clocks can buy these," Starr reassures them, indicating the electrical goods.

Later, lots are made up of various electrical goods. One batch, comprising a car stereo, a camera set and blank videos, is priced at £100. He asks potential buyers what particular item they would pick from it if given the choice. One woman nominates the stereo. It is delivered to her feet. She pays £100 with a credit card, imagining the rest of the lot will follow when the helpers, who are scurrying around taking money, have time. The goods never arrive.

Not that David Starr said that they would. He merely intimated so by forming the lot and asking what people would pay for it - in this case £100.

The crowd breaks into huddles and stares at the contents of their binliners. They are hustled out. The brave stay to argue and are ignored.

"It's a con," spits one man, reluctantly hooking a stereo under his arm. Magdy Ali, 37, has spent £200 on a set of saucepans. "I'm angry. The whole thing was fake. I'm unemployed. How am I going to pay back what I have spent?" Another man, gaunt-looking in a leather jacket, holds a camera and toolkit. "I've paid £400," he stutters. "It's a rip-off. A rip-off." He walks away, shoulders slumped in defeat.

One-day sales are a national industry. Although the selling methods are not illegal, buyers and trading standards officers are enraged by the lack of legislation to protect consumers. "These people work just within the law," says Fran Atkins of the Department of Trade and Industry. "Sellers do not have to hold a licence to organise a sale, and as long as they do not break the law there is nothing we can do."

Peter Cobb, a Trading Standards officer (TSO) in Dorset, where David Starr bases his companies, agrees: "We cannot do anything about it." TSOs think Starr could be making £9,000 from each sale day. Even if he only does one a week, that's just short of £500,000 a year.

Simon Marks, director of Universal Traders, a one-day sale company, says the business is expanding. "There are probably about 90 companies currently operating in the country." Sales are now bigger, as companies target areas as far afield as Newcastle, Wales and Merseyside.

Their mobility ensures minimal comeback from disgruntled punters. Most people who own the venues booked for the sales only know what is happening just before, or even after the event. When the senior youth worker at the Four Feathers, who prefers not to be identified, took the call to book the venue, from a woman also named Starr, her worries were assuaged by the woman's professional manner. An organisation calling itself Performance Supplies wrote to confirm the booking, for 20 December. "A couple of hours before it started," she says, "members of the public who had been to these things before and had seen the leaflets called to say we should call it off. I just didn't have time."

Tim Spark, deputy manager of the Clive Hotel in Hampstead, London, agreed to a one-day sale by a company that claimed it was called Universal Tradings last October. "We had a complaint immediately afterwards," he recalls. "Since the sale, we check out all companies. Universal won't be back."

As the operators have taken to hiring hotel conference rooms and halls, so the sales method has become more sophisticated. Now the professional classes go to them too. "It is a classless rip-off," says a softly spoken, 30-year-old office manager who went to an EEC sale in Devon. "I saw about 150 grown adultsbeing ripped off." She prefers not to give her name.

The embarrassment of the victims is one reason why these companies manage to stay in business, according to Professor Roland Littlewood of the anthropology and psychiatry departments at University College London. "No one wants to own up to being a mug. The sales technique manages to pass over the way in which people normally see probabilities. It's based on the greed of people overcoming their rational calculations."

Such is the greed of the bargain-hunters that trying to warn them off can be an alarming experience. Clare Walker (not her real name), a TSO in Surrey, stands outside venues with colleagues handing out leaflets. "They get really angry. Some have even spat at us."

The operators use a myriad of company names and addresses on fliers and different names for booking halls. Many are not listed as limited companies at Companies House.Clare Walker explains: "They're to get us off the track when we try and prosecute or when people demand their money back."

With so many companies ostensibly operating as rivals to each other, discovering who was responsible for a sale can be nigh impossible. WhenRowhedge Village Hall in Essex hosted a sale on 7 January, the villagers lost an estimated £13,000. The hall was booked by Trafalgar Promotions. But fliers advertising the event carried the name of EMEL Supplies of St Albans.

Mike Barden and his wife, Wendy, who run the village newsletter, the Rowhedge Independent, called Trafalgar Promotions. The company claimed that although it had booked the hall, a rival company had carried out the sale. Mr Barden then called the number on the fliers, and got a recorded message with an address in Poole, Dorset. The address is one used by the QUC Home Shopping Club, another of DavidStarr's companies.

Peter Cobb, chief TSO for Dorset, has been following Starr's career for a number of years. "He has caused us problems over the years, but is, ostensibly, a businessman working within the law."

Trafalgar Promotions, the firm that booked Rowhedge Hall, is one of a nexus of companies, including Universal Traders and the Lydon Corporation, which went into liquidation last year. Based on an industrial estate in Elstree, Hertfordshire, they comprise a massive countrywide operation. "The Lydon Corporation and Universal Traders, in their various incarnations, have been causing problems for about four years," says Ian McLachlan, chief TSO for Hertfordshire, where the company is based.

To see how they operate, TSOs posing as shoppers went to a Universal sale at the Pavilion Conference Centre, Northampton, on 29 September last year. The firm holding the sale gave the same address as one used by the registered company Universal Traders, but gave a slightly different name: Universal Tradings. There is no Universal Tradings listed at Companies House.

"I bought a £20 lot which turned out to be a cheap watch, valued at £6 by a local jeweller," reports the TSO Peter Calvert. "People were paying hundreds of pounds for shabby stuff. At the end, they lured everybody outside and then shut the doors. The only person who got his money back was a burly guy who threatened trouble."

Behind the Hertfordshire companies is a Watford businessman, Simon Marks. He refuses to name or number the companies he runs. He is, however, director of Universal Traders, a former director of the Lydon Corporation and the company secretary of Trafalgar Promotions.

Despite the fact that he can be contacted at the number printed on fliers at the sale in Northampton and that the company addresses are an exact match, he denies knowledge of Universal Tradings or the Universal Shopping Club, a name also given on fliers. "They may be in the same building as us. I don't know." Responding to customers' complaints, he says: "People get everything they pay for."

Sometimes small victories are won. Paul Hunter, who was an auctioneer for the forerunner of Universal Traders, the defunct Lydon Corporation, was prosecuted under the Consumer Protection Act in December 1992. He had made a series of false claims aboutgoods on offer, claiming that the Binari LifeStyle microwaves that he was selling were new and perfect and available at Habitat stores for £225, whereas they had a maximum retail value of £110.

David Starr and a company he once worked for, A&D Supplies, were prosecuted in Shropshire in May 1993 under the Prices Act after holding a sale at the Park Lane Nightclub, Shrewsbury, on 19 December 1992. Starr was found guilty of failing to indicate the prices of various items and was fined £250, ordered to pay costs of £360 and given a conditional discharge for 12 months.

But there are no plans to improve legislation, or to license sale companies. Thus for Peter Cobb, a TSO of 30 years standing, his most aggravating problem is unlikely to go away.

"What is worrying is that several years ago firms like this would have taken £10 off people. Now they are taking £200 to £300 with credit cards. I heard of someone the other day who lost £1,000."

Clare Walker is maintaining her leaflet campaign outside Universal's sales. "We just cannot prosecute and hit them in the pocket where it hurts. This and warning potential venues is all we can do."

The end of the evening atMarylebone sees David Starr standing on a virtually empty platform with a small fortune.

How does it feel to know his customers are furious? "They're all a nuisance and the reason they are so dissatisfied is that they have no fucking money."