Most of us will be out bargain hunting this weekend, when there will be an estimated 10,000 car-boot sales. A survey of 1,000 people commissioned by the second-hand retail chain Cash Converters found that bargain seekers made almost 145 million visits to car-boot sales last year - three visits per person spending on average pounds 8.32 a time.
The idea of shopping for second-hand goods being confined to those less well off is a myth. While lower social groups visit car-boot sales three times as often as ABC1s, the survey also revealed that professional and managerial types are more likely to buy second-hand than they are to buy the Financial Times: more than half a million of them go to boot sales two to three times a year or more and spend pounds 12.05 on average.
The single biggest attraction of these "alternative retail outlets" is the chance to pick up a bargain, with just under half citing this as the reason. Thrifty British shoppers were also attracted by low prices (24 per cent) and value for money (18 per cent).
At the Oxfam shop in Marylebone, west London, yesterday, Angelica Letsch, who works for an independent record company, was trying on a lined kimono for pounds 39.99. She said: "It's the low prices, it's the adventure. You never know what's going to be there and that's a great feeling. I've just got two beautiful wrought-iron candleholders for pounds 2.99 and you can imagine what that would cost in Selfridges or Harrods. I think it's a really nice way of shopping."
June Doswell's greatest bargain was a silk dress that she had seen in Simpsons for pounds 300 but picked up in a charity shop for pounds 5. "I'm a clothesaholic but you have to have a budget. So what I'll do is buy a really good jacket and then come here to buy trousers to match or vice versa. I think it's a real English thing to get something for nothing."
Peter Holbrook, the manager of the branch, said that the image of charity shops being musty and full of tat was outdated. "We get people popping into the Conran shop and then coming into us. We have a lot of very well- heeled customers."
The Marylebone shop has a large record collection and Mr Holbrook said that many disc jockeys came into to look for unusual records as well as pop stars such as Jarvis Cocker, Sir Paul McCartney and Brian May. "We've sold first-edition Rolling Stones albums and first-edition Sergeant Peppers for pounds 150 - pounds 200. We also have a lot of books and sold a first edition Catcher in the Rye [the novel by JD Salinger]."
Michael Kew was delighted to find a recording of the Brandenburg Concertos by Otto Klemperer. "I come here because they have the best record selection that I know of. There's a very wide choice."
Ten minutes away, the Oxfam branch in Edgware Road is a more conventional type of charity shop, Rosemary Hittinger was browsing: "I come here to buy my books because books are so expensive now." she said. "I think we're a nation of bargain hunters. I don't think it's altruism at all."
Angela Calavia was less convinced: "I don't usually come into charity shops because of the smell." she said. "They smell of that musty smell of death although this one doesn't. I always worry. I don't like wearing someone else's clothes."
Christine Carus-Wilson, disagrees: "A large part of my wardrobe comes from charity shops. The cost is important now I'm retired and all women love a bargain. So as a result I've got a very interesting wardrobe. I do like to help Oxfam and Christian Aid. Also I think they're very useful if you've got young children - all that baby equipment is so expensive."
But the Cash Converters survey also highlighted a number of pitfalls peculiar to this retail sector - particularly car-boot sales. The prospect of unwittingly buying faulty or stolen goods alarmed one-quarter of shoppers. Nearly one in five were concerned about the quality of goods purchased and the lack of a guarantee or after-sales protection.
"Many people are unaware of the lack of protection attached to buying goods from a car-boot sale," said Alan Street, chief executive of the Institute of Trading Standards. "Buying from a private individual very much reduces the consumer's rights in law