Going to the January sales is a primitive ritual. We gather to make a killing. Prices are "slashed" and "cut" and written in blood-red, the colour that makes our brains excited, sexually turned on and sometimes angry. It's a lottery. The promise is prizes for all, if only you rummage enough. Sales are also a great escape from post-Christmas family stress. Shops provide a safe, happy environment with everything neat, a smiley staff and a pampering atmosphere, not to mention the feeling that you, the customer, can do no wrong.
It's usually women who spend, spend, spend on sales but that doesn't mean they are somehow biologically the Shopping Sex. It is simply that they are conditioned to shop, thinks Dr Sheila Rossan, a sexual stereotype specialist at Brunel University.
"It has to do with the fact that traditionally men have been highly directed shoppers because until recently stores were closed after working hours," she says.
Women, on the other hand, have had more spare time and therefore been able to browse and pick and choose. The more ardent women shop in pairs. A recent fly-on-the-wall documentary at London's Harvey Nichols revealed only one woman by herself in the whole store. "Women like someone else's opinion. It's a social activity," Dr Rossan says.
Perhaps for dedicated shoppers, "saleing" is a continuation of the Christmas party feeling, when it is acceptable to be a little out of control. We rationalise our useless bargains by saying we're stocking up. I have seen "salers" copy the purchases of someone smarter next to them in the store. Perhaps Harvey Nicks and Co should try planting a few shoppers with model looks next to the atrocious stock. It would move faster.
"Sale-oholics feel exonerated by the cost reduction," explains Dr Ludwig Lowenstein, the shoppers' shrink, a psychologist who detoxes shopping addicts, or "onomaniacs" as they're known. He will only take a patient if they drop their weapons and go peacefully by giving up their credit cards.
Compulsive shoppers are at the extreme end of the spectrum of the browser- gatherer kind of shopper. Browsers seek a bit of a cheer-up. Compulsive shoppers really think they can fill their inner emptiness with material things. Shoes are at the top of their shopping list - 98.5 million pairs of women's shoes were sold this year - followed by perfume and clothes.
"I feel sorry for those born rich. Some feel they haven't got everything and are often depressed and anxious," says Dr Lowenstein. The less well- off end up committing fraud and going to prison to pay their bills.
Compulsive shoppers are like nymphomaniacs. Just as unsatisfied women rifle through every available man in search of the one who can give them the orgasm they have never had, these shoppers get their fix from the surge of adrenaline they get from spotting what might be ... The Solution, the Ultimate Thing that will really fulfil them. But then, like a drug, the feeling wears off and they have to shop to start the cycle again.
The Duchess of York is their patron saint and Awful Warning. Even when on her uppers, she would spend thousands to get herself out of a downer. She probably couldn't tell you what she bought.
The more controlled kind of shopper doesn't have this hunger. She is a hunter. The Opportunist.
Shawna Moss is a freelance shopping adviser based at London's Grosvenor House Hotel. "Evening dresses are brilliant buys in the sales," she advises. "So expensive otherwise." She takes her clients to dress hire shops which often sell lightly worn Cinderella ball gowns, like One Night Stand (44 Pimlico Road, London, SW1, 0171-730 8708).
Never be impressed by the name tag, she advises. "I see people get carried away by designer names in sales."
Her other tip is to negotiate the sale price down. "The richest women love a bargain. I have one client who can negotiate me under the table. I hide behind the coats."
The biggest sale shopper is a new type, the Sightseer. These use shopping as a form of entertainment, sport or therapy. Malls were built for Sightseers. They eat sandwiches around the fountains while their children play in the see-through lifts.
Primrose Wells, a 32-year-old wedding organiser, and her mother Maggie Evans, 53, are expert Sightseers. "I'm not an addict, but I enjoy it as therapy," says Maggie. The women see their shopping as female bonding, a celebration of the Christmas spirit, an escapade rather than an escape. "There's a lot of camaraderie between mothers and daughters in the changing rooms."
They plan their day carefully, getting up before six in the morning to find the parking space nearest the shop entrances. That leaves time for a civilised breakfast before the shops open. They wear comfortable flat shoes and take only one jumper, tied round their waists, because shops are so hot.
They won't buy special sale purchases, only proper stock. Primrose's big buy last year was nine pairs of roller blades for friends, reduced from pounds 300 to pounds 120 in Macro. "My husband Steve is terrified of going shopping, because I spend money. When you buy something, you rely on men being absent minded. When I hear women in the changing rooms saying, `What shall I tell my husband?' I say, `Tell him it's been in your wardrobe for years'."
Are there any men who enjoy sale shopping? Tim Guy, 28, is an HGV driver who counts shopping among his favourite sports. "I go to the sales at the end, when the crowds have died down. At the start of sales, you get 10 per cent off. At the end, you get 50."
While Maggie Evans is at the sales three times a week, her husband Ken, 56, has not been shopping for two years. Why doesn't he shop? "I'm happy with what I've got," he says, absentmindedly.
lShawna Moss offers help with sale shopping. Tel 0973 638977
lDr Ludwig Lowenstein offers advice to over-ardent shoppers in person or by letter. Allington Manor, Allington Lane, Fairoaks, Eastleigh, Hants, SO50 7DE. 01703 692261.