Christmas is finally upon us. Phew. Time to sit back, watch some entertaining (if not mind-numbing) re-runs of blockbuster movies, eat fancy food, and put the hassle of Christmas shopping behind us.

Or is it? The January sales are just around the corner; and for some avid consumers, the thrill of catching a bargain, or squabbling over the last pair of leather kitten-heeled slingbacks in a size 6, is far too addictive and exciting to pass up.

If you enjoy shopping for clothes and its associated pleasantries, you won't be happy shopping during the sales. Sales staff pay little attention to you, the changing rooms in most stores become communal (if they aren't already), and you may be swayed by the price reduction on a garment rather than whether it suits you or not.

The only way to "do the sales" is to go out with what you want firmly in mind and stick to it. A friend of mine set off one year armed with a newly-acquired credit card and was so impressed by the bargains that "sale mania" set in.

She went up to her limit on sales bargains from the likes of Armani, Nicole Farhi and Whistles. But when she got them home, the Nicole Farhi coat was a bit too long, the Whistles suit the wrong shade of brown, and the Armani dress, just a little too tight around the bust.

All in all, a day of fun turned into a day of disaster, as returning sale goods can be a nightmare. Certain stores offer credit notes or exchange on goods returned - this is the policy of Whistles and Nicole Farhi. Armani will refund at the discretion of the management, but few stores give money back unless the goods are damaged.

My friend was lucky, she wasn't stuck with her impulse buys. So take note: it always works to your advantage to ask the manager of the shop you are buying from about their returns policy.

To do the sales the sensible way, take stock of your wardrobe. Check off how many pairs of trousers you own, how many suits, skirts, shirts, coats, and evening dresses - even shoes and casual wear should come under scrutiny. This done, really think about what you wear on a day to day basis. If more than half of your clothes are defunct, sales therapy should give your wardrobe a face lift.

It is best to look for basics. If you need a few new jumpers, sales are great because knitwear is always generously reduced. Good classic suits are always a good buy, as are winter jackets. Never go for a frivolous impulse buy, like a lime-green through split evening dress, go for what you need. Sales staff are always eager to tell you you look a million dollars in something. Remember that the goods on sale are goods the store has been unable to shift thus far.

Three top tips for sales shopping:

*If it doesn't feel right, don't buy it, no matter what the sales assistant says.

*Check the returns policy of the store before making your purchase.

*Look around. You may buy that near-perfect black polo neck at one store, only to find a better version even cheaper somewhere else.