Season of bad will and bargain-hunters : SALES GUIDE

Spare a thought, says David Nicholson-Lord, for all those poor overworked shop assistants who, having just survived the Christmas rush, must return to work and the the frenzy of the winter sales.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Pity the poor shopworkers. Scarcely have they put their feet up after the Christmas shopping frenzy than it's the morning after Boxing Day, there are hundreds of faces pressed against the shop doors and it's time for the new year shopping frenzy.

The feel-poor factor will be briefly abandoned tomorrow as millions of shoppers take to the streets in search of the bargains that eluded them before Christmas. For sales staff, it will be back to the barricades after the shortest of breaks.

Some stores opened yesterday, and queues formed outside DIY stores, furniture shops and electrical retailers. But most of the department stores are starting their sales today.

At Selfridge's in Oxford Street, sales staff have had a Cratchit-style Christmas, working until midnight after the store closed on Christmas Eve, going in to work yesterday for more scene-shifting, then turning up this morning for the 9am start of the winter sale.

Tim Daniels, Selfridge's managing director, is hoping for a good clean sale this year - no fighting and no broken china.

"The fighting is really quite unnecessary," he says. "We have enough bargains without resorting to that. But on the first day you see people who have made a very special effort to come in, and they are going to get a bargain come hell or high water."

The china department, scene of many a fracas, has quietened down in recent years, but Mr Daniels admits there is still a lot of "grabbing, pushing and shoving".

Selfridge's was the first store to bring annual sales to Britain. Its founder, Harry Selfridge, came to London from the US in 1906, was appalled by the conditions that shoppers faced - dim lighting, merchandise secreted away, assistants who refused to allow browsing - and opened a store three years later. Among his innovations were the now-famous window displays and the bargain basement.

Since then sales have gone through various cycles of rudeness, largely in response to market conditions. Mr Daniels says we are now experiencing a reasonably polite stage. This is because discounting is turning into a year-round phenomenon. Many shops launched Christmas or "mid-season" sales early in December - and because outrageous bargains, known in the trade as "call-birds", are largely a thing of the past, shoppers have fewer things to fight over.

"We have grown out of them," says Mr Daniels. "They engender a lot of hysteria."

Much of the incident and media interest has also gone. One bargain hunter queued outside Selfridge's for three nights with his goat, raising money for an animal charity. When the store presented him with a cheque for his efforts, the goat promptly ate it.

Up to 1,000 people will probably queue outside the store tomorrow. The canniest will already have found their bargains: staff have been piling up bigger items such as furniture for the past week, marking down prices.

Many departments, however, were trading frenetically up to 6pm on Christmas Eve, so the huge scene-shift for the sale took place in the following four or five hours, or will happen some time today.

There were short-cuts: the banners hung over the sales floors in the week before Christmas will unpeel to reveal the words "Sale now on". But co-ordinating 3,000 staff in the space of a few hours entails what Mr Daniels calls a "military operation".

By the end of tomorrow, around 150,000 people will have gone through Selfridge's - the same number as will visit a big out-of-town complex such as Gateshead's Metro Centre. It is the store's busiest and most crucial time of the year: interest charges on stock mean clearing it is nearly as important as making money on it. "We hardly ever put merchandise away after the sale to bring it out again," says Mr Daniels.

The best days for bargains are thus the first or, if you are an irregular size, the last. Knitwear, coats, gloves and scarves will see price reductions everywhere because of the mild autumn.

Selfridge's sales associates earn £184 for a 39-hour week. For working today they will receive double time and a day off in lieu. Mr Daniels admits this is the most tiring time of their year but adds: "They are psyched up. They really enjoy being busy." He makes a point of thanking everybody for their effort: "They appreciate being patted on the back."

John Fahey, London organiser for the shopworkers' union, USDAW, disagrees. Wage deregulation, longer shopping hours and the growth of part-time work mean that shop staff are under greater pressure to work anti-social hours, or risk losing their jobs, he says.

"This is a very depressing time of year for sales staff. We used to look forward to a week's respite before the New Year sales began. Now they're getting earlier and earlier. This year we have been inundated with complaints by people who feel stressed upto the eyeballs. Given the choice, they'd probably be staying at home with their families."