Don't let the bargains get you down: The sales may appear to offer spectacular savings, but make sure you read between the lines of hype

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The Independent Online
THE JANUARY sales are already in full swing. But beware: the bargain bathroom or cut- price crockery may not be all it is cracked up to be.

The sales frequently bring out the worst in shop and shopper alike. Put the word 'reduced' on anything, and the customer behaves as if possessed. As a result the stores are awash with 'bargains' that normally would not rate a second glance.

Shops must not mislead consumers about price reductions. But working out whether an item is a good buy in a sale can be a problem.

The Office of Fair Trading has a timely warning about some of the tricks of the trade:

'Special sale purchase. Worth pounds 120. Now pounds 99.99'. Worth and value claims are often meaningless, and the shop should not use such terms. Ask yourself whether the item is a good buy at the selling price.

'Manufacturer's recommended price pounds 299. Our price pounds 250'. An everyday claim, but the OFT warns that sometimes the manufacturer's price is inflated. Compare the selling price with that on offer in other shops.

'Special price reduced to pounds 50'. From what?

If your purchase is marked 'seconds', 'shop-soiled' or 'damaged', you cannot expect top quality. It is up to you to discover what is wrong. If in doubt, always ask a shop assistant.

But if you buy a cut-price coat marked 'second, slightly faded' and you later discover a hole in the sleeve, you are within your rights to complain.

How you pay for the goods does not affect your legal rights. In fact, if you use your credit card and the item costs more than pounds 100, you have additional rights if something goes wrong. If the shop goes out of business or the goods are faulty, you may claim redress from the credit card company as well as the shop.

Another cautionary note: in every high street you will see squatted shops. Before you hand over your money for those bargain goods at knock-down prices, think again. Where do you find the trader if the goods are faulty?

Returning sales goods, even to reputable shops, can be a troublesome process. So it is important to know your rights, as the following example shows.

Say a woman bought a pair of designer shoes in a sale. All over the store were signs saying: 'No refunds on sale goods'.

She wore the shoes to a disco. She was the life and soul of the party for just two dances, when the shoes split at the seams.

She hot-footed it back to the shop, where she complained to the assistant shoe manager.

He said she did not have a leg to stand on. 'They are designer shoes. You are not supposed to spend all night partying in them,' he said. 'You should wear them for gentle walking around indoors.

'Take it up with the manufacturer if you are not happy. You can have a credit note. I'm not giving you a refund. Did you not see the signs?'

Cowed by his attitude, the woman might toe the line and accept the credit note. In fact, she could insist on the cash. If you buy goods in a sale you have the same legal rights as at any other time.

The goods must be fit for any particular purpose made known to the seller, correspond with the description and be of merchantable quality - that is, fit for the purpose for which they are usually bought.

Shoes are usually bought for everyday wear. You do not expect them to split after a single night out. If they are not clearly described as 'not for dancing' or 'for gentle walking indoors only', The unhappy customer should be able to get her money back.

It is the shop's responsibility to sort out her problem. She should not be fobbed off with excuses about having to deal with the manufacturer.

Signs in shops that say: 'No refunds on sale goods' are illegal. A shop cannot wriggle out of its responsibility for faulty goods.

If the shoes prove faulty you do not normally have to accept a credit note, but you may not ask for a cash refund if your attention was drawn to the fault at the time of purchase, if you damaged the goods yourself, or if you simply changed your mind about the item after buying it. If a store offers cash in these circumstances, take the money and run.

(Photograph omitted)