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Carola Long: The first rule of bargain hunting: accessories first

At the sales

With the giving and receiving of Christmas day over and done with, the real highlight of the season begins today: self-gifting.

The sales are a cut-price paradise for fashion lovers. Many of them have started already, but most of the big guns of the fashion world have held back. Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Liberty all start today. Selfridges promises reductions of up to 75 per cent while over at Harvey Nichols there are savings of up to 50 per cent.

Discounts such as these can severely impair one's judgement, however, so it's important to have a shopping strategy prepared in advance. While there's room for some spontaneity, it's a good idea to work out what your wardrobe is actually missing, and avoid the dreaded 'repeat purchase.' If you already own 10 pairs of black trousers, chances are the 11th won't revolutionise your wardrobe. It also makes sense to be realistic about your lifestyle; a feathered ballgown reduced by 85 per cent, say, might be beautiful, but unless you're booked in to appear on Strictly Come Dancing it's unlikely to work out very economical on a 'cost per wear' basis.

Rather than making savings of a few pounds here and there at the cheapest high street chains, it's best to opt for designer labels, boutique brands such as Marc by Marc Jacobs or premium high street chains such as Reiss whose sale is on now. If your budget is tight, focus on picking up more luxurious items such as cashmere knits at affordable high street shops. My contacts on the shop floor at Selfridges tell me that thanks to a strong season there is less stock than usual, so don't wait until the sale fizzles out hoping for last-minute bargains, but get stuck in early.

After narrowing down your hunting ground, focus on seeking out a few key items. The best purchases tend to be modern classics, those timeless wardrobe building blocks which have enough of a twist to stop them looking too conservative. Coats are a sound investment, particularly if you plump for an enduring style such as a peacoat, trench or belted design. Hobb's new label NW3 has a sweet camel barrel coat reduced to £189 from £259. Look for tailored pieces too: Selfridges' personal shopper Claude Pinnot says, " a beautifully cut designer jacket, skirt or pair of trousers is a lasting investment – I would recommend Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Alexander Wang."

Accessories usually sell out first during the sales, so if you are looking for a new bag, shoes or jewellery, make these your priority. Mulberry has discounts of up to 50 per cent on men's and women's bags now. Look out for the Bayswater clutch in emerald green croc-print suede, reduced by 30 per cent to £346, and the patent Daria Hobo bag reduced to £455.

Classic shoes are a good buy for men. At the Paul Smith sale, which starts on Monday, there are some very stylish brogues reduced from £195 to £137.

Another strategy is to look forward to next season's trends. Some of autumn/ winter's themes such as leather and ankle boots will still be going strong. Even though Whistles' leather bikers, pictured left, were a high street hit of the season, they have still gone in to the sale. Other strong trends for spring include washed pinks and putty shades, photographic floral prints, underwear detailing, such as corset panelling and moulded bra cups, and frills. There are certainly bargains to be had, just don't expect them to come too easily.