Bargains for those buying by the season

Shopping at the right time of year can save you thousands, says Iain S Bruce

The seasonal shopping spectacular has begun. One of capitalism's most sacred rites, over the next four weeks Britain's consumers are expected to spend in excess of £12bn on gifts for friends and relatives, yet evidence is emerging that shopaholics' enthusiasm is waning, with more consumers adopting a strategic approach to buying in order to save cash and even generate a profit.

The seasonal shopping spectacular has begun. One of capitalism's most sacred rites, over the next four weeks Britain's consumers are expected to spend in excess of £12bn on gifts for friends and relatives, yet evidence is emerging that shopaholics' enthusiasm is waning, with more consumers adopting a strategic approach to buying in order to save cash and even generate a profit.

According to advocates of seasonal shopping, by simply tweaking their approach to buying, the average family could save up to £318 a month. Taking advantage of the way demand for certain products fluctuates at various points of the year, this new breed of switched-on consumer surfs the seasons for fun and profit to generate average savings of some 20 per cent.

"More and more consumers have stopped following the high-street crowd, thought about what they're doing and adopted a more savvy approach to spending," says Dorothea Arndt, head of product at the price comparison website Kelkoo. "They're starting Christmas shopping a few months earlier, buying at a discount online and holding over on purchases until the end of season sales in order to make what can be quite considerable savings."

Although they're tipped to spend more this Christmas than the last, the American Express Retail Index shows that 65 per cent of shoppers are setting budgets for their purchases, preferring to wait for the best deals rather than be panicked into overspending. The research also indicates that the number of consumers who began acquiring presents back in January has doubled, with 11 per cent snapping up bargain gifts almost before the decorations had been taken down.

"It seems like an almost absurdly simple concept and it is surprising that so many people have not caught on to the idea before," said Arndt. "The increase in online shopping this year shows that consumers are becoming much shrewder however, and are taking a smarter approach to shopping that can see them saving as much as 50-60 per cent on some items."

Winter

Demand for gifts might be at an all-time high, but for the sideways-thinking shopper winter represents a bumper season of opportunities ranging from small but significant cash savings to lucrative investments. The practice requires a significant shift of focus, diverting your attention away from the rest of the world's all-consuming Yuletide frenzy, but has proven potential as a domestic money-spinner.

In a nutshell, seasonal shopping requires the practitioner to consider the basic laws of supply and demand. By switching to a pattern of only buying goods at the relevant season's end, taking advantage of stock clearance offers and falling sales traffic, the smarter than average punter can cut their average annual expenditure by up to a fifth.

"All you have to remember is that at particular times of year demand in certain markets tails off quite dramatically, and at these points vendors are traditionally forced to offer the best possible deals in order to attract what custom there is," says Mark Neal, group operations director of housing and finance experts Economic Lifestyle. "Due to the focus on Christmas spending, winter is a particularly good time find these deals on anything from watersports equipment and caravans to housing and mortgages."

Neal offers two examples from the housing market: in Bournemouth, a two-bedroom flat bought for £97,000 in October last year sold for £140,000 in May, while a similar property in Bexleyhill saw an increase by £10,000 in the same period.

It is a pattern that plays out across the market, with developers such as Linden Homes currently offering discounts of up to £20,000 to attract new home buyers over the traditionally flat festive period. "When demand drops people have to polish their offerings if they're going to make the sales they need," he says. "If you can take advantage of that there is money to be made."

Cars, particularly convertibles and classic models, can similarly be snapped up at considerable discounts during winter. By purchasing such vehicles at the trade's lowest point of the year, it is even possible to make a profit by storing your purchases and then putting them back on the market in late spring or summer, when the average buyer's thoughts returns to daydreams of summer breezes and open roads.

According to Glass's, publishers of Glass's Guide, the bible of the used car trade, anyone looking to buy a one-year-old prestige-badge convertible or roadster such as a BMW or Mercedes-Benz will typically pay over £1,000 more in July and August than in December or January. Rates of depreciation for this type of car slow dramatically from February through to the peak spring and summer selling period. Then they lose value at a much faster rate from August through to the end of the year, explains Richard Crosthwaite, Prestige Car Editor at Glass's. "For example, an '03-plated Mercedes-Benz SLK 320 automatic will depreciate by £3,825 during 2004, but a significant 65 per cent of this depreciation occurs from August onwards."

Crosthwaite says that owners interested in selling a prestige convertible will maximise their return if they seek a private or trade buyer in the months of April through to July. This takes account of the fact that the next end user will probably buy in the hope that they can still enjoy a couple of months of open-top motoring before the weather turns.

"Dealers confirm that they have to move stock to survive, and taking advantage of that could be profitable if you get it right," said Ashley Winter, manager of the Patterson Ford dealership in Newcastle upon Tyne. The rule doesn't apply to all cars because you have to take natural depreciation into account, but on high-end models such as Mercedes and Jaguar anyone buying now could expect to pay 15-20 per cent less than they would in summer.

From sailing boats to camping equipment, the prices of fair weather items tend to plummet as the snows blow in, with the sums demanded for such purchases as caravans falling by as much as 30 per cent due to dwindling customer interest. In one example case, a motor cruiser bought on eBay last November fetched £900, but after being stored for the season in the purchaser's drive was relisted on the internet auction site in May and sold for £1,490.

Although the prices of goods such as household furniture tend to stay buoyant in early winter while people tart up their homes for Christmas, towards the end of the season these traditionally fall, making February a prime period for canny consumption. With the January sales rush petering out and the majority of customers' cash reserves exhausted, many retailers attempt to boost their flagging figures with the best deals of the year, creating a slim window of opportunity that offers discounts as high as 50 per cent before prices begin to recover again in early March.

"There are some fantastic bargains available in the January sales, but there is also enough demand to stop prices falling all the way," said Arndt. "By hanging on to the very last moment and waiting until retailers are desperate to shift what's left of their Christmas stock, the smart shopper can slash thousands off their annual expenditure."

Spring

The first item on the experienced season surfer's spring shopping calendar is winter clothing. In early April, retailers tend to mount one last effort to shift such goods before removing them to make way for beachwear ranges. The choice may not be so abundant, but buy purchasing late and storing the goods away for six months, cash savings of up to 70 per cent are not uncommon.

Almost any item that is traditionally used only during winter will be similarly available at cut-throat prices come spring. Central heating systems, skis and even snow mobiles are amongst those new and second-hand goods available at a fraction of their high-season costs.

Summer

The perfect moment to sell the bargain-basement homes and speedboats you bought in winter, the advent of Britain's uncertain summer is the time when most people consider making such large purchases and prices traditionally rise across the board. But some opportunities still remain for the determined season surfer.

When the sun is out consumers' thoughts stray outdoors, and thus it is the price of largely indoor pursuits that suffer most. As most purchase entertainment equipment when winter bites, electrical retailers are at their lowest ebb, offering best of the year deals on goods such as home cinema equipment, hi-fi systems and computer games. On a pair of £10,000 Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 5 speakers, for example, discounts of £2,250 are available if buying in July or August.

Also priced to move at this point of the year are perfumes, jewellery and other luxury items. Seasonal slow movers due to consumers' focus upon holidays and the annual duty free bonanza, these are commonly on sale at discounts of between 20 per cent and 30 per cent, making it a good time to snap up early Christmas gifts.

Summer

The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is one of the worst for those who prefer to skip the traditional consumer beat. Sales traditionally pick up at this point as punters dig in for winter, so many items are at their most expensive.

There are still bargains to be had, however. With the travel agencies just releasing next year's package holidays, offers aimed at getting the sales ball rolling are often at their peak, and by thinking ahead savings of 15-20 per cent are available to those buying ahead of the new year, when the sales rush begins. Also available at knock-down rates are garden items, with the major DIY stores slashing prices by as much as 75 per cent in their efforts to move barbecues off the shelves to make way for Christmas trees. At B&Q a summer house that cost £3,999 for most of this year is available at a discount of £820.

"All you have to do is think like a retailer," said Gill. "When everybody's looking to buy outdoor goods they can charge what they want and know that they'll get it, but once that demand dies the whole picture changes. Suddenly the boot is on the other foot and if you offer cash when few others are willing to, it's common to find that they'll be desperate to accommodate you."

'It's amazing what you save if you just wait'

A committed seasonal shopper who began bargain hunting as a student, Armand David prides himself on never paying the full retail price. By careful timing and hunting down the best deals on the internet, he has slashed his annual shopping bill by up to 30 per cent. "It's amazing what you can save if you just stop and consider the options before rushing in with your credit card," he says.

Armand only buys clothing twice a year, purchasing his winter outfits in spring and stocking up on summer gear in the autumn sales. Using internet price comparison engines to check the latest deals available at high-street stores, he does most of his Christmas shopping in June and only takes holidays when most of us are on the plane home.

"I booked a group of friends in for a week's ski trip and by accepting a date one week after we had planned to go saved £300," he says.

Waiting a few months before purchasing DVDs and computer game releases saves Armand up to half the official retail price tag.

"When I compared my spending with my sister's we estimated that I'm paying thousands of pounds less for everything I need than she does," he says. "You might think it sounds obsessive but it's a simple way to get the most out of your money."

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