THE SALES There are marked-down goods and there are genuine bargains. They are not the same. By Karen Falconer
Did you know that when you visit a post-Christmas sale you may be splashing out on specially bought-in merchandise rather than genuinely reduced goods? Surely not, I hear you cry, convinced that the great tradition of bi-annual sales has not entirely given way to the promotional farce we've come to expect for much of the year. Why would so many people queue and fight if there was nothing substantial to be gained?

The truth is that there are bargains to be had in the sales - end-of- season merchandise, discontinued lines, perhaps even loss leaders - but they may be thinner on the rails than you think. Sales originated as a way of getting rid of last season's stock. But with increasingly good stock control systems in the bigger stores, there is less surplus to sell off. However, the January sales have become almost an institution with consumers, so stores have to virtually create bargains to keep them happy.

"Retailers have to provide a feel-good factor for purchases so the consumer can justify it," said Martin Fisher, officer on prices for the Institute of Trading Standards Administration. Sales, he added, together with the enormous signs in shop windows and hordes of ads shouting about the bargains to be had, are a way of convincing people that they get the best possible deal.

Indeed, for the serious sale shopper, there are seriously good buys to be had. "The people at the front of the queue will have been in the store looking under the brown paper over the previous few days. They will know exactly what they want," said a spokesman for Harrods. "They will have tried on the red Ralph Lauren dress at a 50 per cent mark down and worked out which door is closest to it. The real sale pros will be in and out of the store by 9.10am."

Indeed, most shops offer reductions of up to 50 per cent at the outset of a sale, often increasing the discount as the sale progresses. Fashion is particularly good for reductions as most merchandise cannot be carried over into the new season. In other areas - furnishings, electricals, homeware - markdowns are less dramatic unless the goods are soiled or being discontinued.

"We start planning our sale in October," a Heals' spokeswoman explained. "Normally, our discounts are between 10 and 30 per cent, or 50 per cent if we are trying to clear something. Often, our bargains are one-off things, something weird and wonderful, or upholstery that has had 200 people sitting on it."

But, until prices are slashed to about 70 per cent, retailers are still making some profit. A 10 per cent reduction means a handsome profit; 50 per cent means a smaller, but still a hefty one, as the original selling price is often around 150 per cent of the wholesale cost, minus overheads.

Genuine sale bargains are only part of today's sale story. As customer foot-fall increases dramatically (Harrods gets 300,000 people - 10 times its normal amount of shoppers - on the first day of its sale), so retailers have devised ways to capitalise on this. They buy in merchandise specially for the sales, although how much varies widely from store to store, department to department. It might be slight seconds in glassware or china, end-of- range or unpopular lines in white goods, electrical or audio goods, or bulk-bought jumpers or T-shirts. It's often merchandise offered by manufacturers at a significantly reduced price.

"Bought-in merchandise, which often comes from the Far East, may be lower quality than usual," said Chris Dawson of retail consultancy Management Horizons. "It's stuff that stores may not be able to stock at full price because of the lesser image."

Mr Fisher puts it more strongly: "I don't feel that the public gets what they think they're getting when they see a sale sign. They expect a real bargain, but products are much more gimcrack. There will be shops that run sales in the traditional way but they are increasingly the small independents. Companies run by shareholders have to play to the current market rules."

Buying in special goods is the modern-day sales trend; most of the major high-street players now do it. The problem is that many consumers are not able to, or aware of the need to differentiate between a real bargain and what is nothing more than a cheaper product at a cheaper price. In the general mayhem that sales are, they may snap up goods which otherwise they would not have done. However, there are ways to spot the imposters.

A Code of Practice on Sales goods stipulates that they have to have been on sale at the full price in the store for at least 28 days during the previous six months. Bought-in merchandise obviously has not been and therefore has to be clearly marked as a "special purchase" item, or as reduced from the Recommended Retail Price (a manufacturer's suggested price which may bear absolutely no relation to what the product could realistically sell for) as opposed to the previous selling price.

There are other tell-tale signs, even without the signposting.

"If you have a stack of navy pullovers in small, medium and large," explained Harrods, "it is an indication that you are buying something that has been bought in." Genuine sale goods tend to be one-offs or obscure sizes, or ties with strange prints on them.

It may be that a customer is quite happy to snap up a special purchase product: retailers wouldn't stock them if people didn't buy them. After all, it can be quite handy to purchase a stack of shirts for work, or the extra plates for the kitchen at a cheap price. But, for the genuine bargain hunters, it is worth remembering that most small shops really do have to offload one season's stock before they can buy in the next and, therefore, the mark-downs will be on merchandise they actually sold.

For my money, forget 10 per cent discounts: it's half-price bargains on quality goods that I'm after, and, if they're not there, forget it. I'll take my money home again.