There's no rush: we're all shopping around now

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The Independent Online
Suddenly the recession is over - or so it would seem from the apparent surge in Christmas and new year sales. But is this real, or merely battered retailers' hype? And is it just the short-term phenomenon of people saying 'phew' and spending money, or has there been a more fundamental change in attitudes?

Well, something has certainly happened. It looks as though car sales for December will be up 30 per cent on last year, even though December is usually a bad month in that sector. Marks & Spencer said yesterday that it had a buoyant Christmas. Package holiday sales are roaring ahead. Of course, there certainly ought to be a jump in retail sales, what with the falls in interest rates helping British shoppers and the decline in sterling pulling in foreign ones.

But even if the December/January period proves a flash in the pan, I suspect we are seeing something new and important in shoppers' behaviour, which points to a change in our spending habits in the next few years. This will come about not only because of a shift in attitudes, but more because of a change in the fundamental economic background. The change in shopping habits will be similar to that which has taken place in house-buying.

Fundamentally, in a world of low inflation it pays to hold back. Anyone who bought a fridge or coat three years ago will have done so knowing, at least subconsciously, that the price would be higher in a year's time. So even if the buyer did not strike absolutely the best bargain available at the time, the purchase would have been entirely reasonable. It might even have been worth borrowing to buy - though not at credit card rates.

Only in the case of a few electronic goods, such as personal computers, where technological advance has cut the price dramatically, has it been better to wait.

Now the boot is on the other foot. Not only is inflation not going to take off in the next two or three years, many household goods may actually be cheaper a year from now - such is the desperation of many retailers to make a sale. It is worth buying now only if you are sure you are getting a bargain: hence the attraction of the sales.

Ordinary people are reacting quite rationally to a shift of power from producer to consumer, brought about partly by recession, partly by the downward shift in inflationary expectations. The recession will end - it may already have ended. Provided inflation carries on downwards, however, consumers will find it advantageous to wait. That implies a radical shift of power from the producer to the consumer, which will outlast the recession.

This shift of power is leading to a shift in taste. By and large shoppers seem to be less easily swayed by the swank factor, or the brand image. Five years ago it was swanky to buy a hot hatchback. Now the hot hatchbacks have been targeted by so- called joyriders. People tempted to buy a hot hatchback are not only increasing the risk of having their car stolen (and accordingly being subjected to much higher insurance premiums), they are also making the subliminal statement that they have similar tastes to joyriders. This is not a statement most rational adults would wish to make.

The decline of the brand image - the 'Gucci factor' - is perhaps more evident in Japan than it is here. In Japan there has been an absolute collapse in sales of branded goods and a shift to unbranded goods, which offer similar quality at a fraction of the price. Britons never became as hung up on brands as the Japanese, but anecdotally something similar is happening here.

This brings us back to the sales. They will end, the racks will be refilled, and the retailers will strive to restore their margins. The big test will come then: will they be able to maintain profits at the previous level, or has there been some permanent change in the balance of power that will hold them back? Margins may grow to some extent, but my suspicion is that this 'hunt the bargain' culture will persist.

Look at the scepticism that has greeted the trumpeted price cuts by Sainsbury's: reporters shot out to test the claims and found that traditional low-price outlets such as Kwik Save still undercut the big suppliers. Look at the bad publicity Ford generated by increasing its prices shortly after car sales tax was ended: its sales may well have been passed by Rover in December. Look at the consumer credit figures: retail sales are at a record level, yet consumers are still managing to repay debt. The moral is that people will not rush to buy at the time that suits the retailer. They will go for bargains.

For 40 years or more there has been an increasing trend towards the 'I want it now' attitude among consumers. People brought up between the wars tended to lament the disappearance of the rules with which they were familiar - that if you wanted to buy something you saved up first - and saw the rush to buy as a symptom of some sort of moral decay. But it really is not, or should not be, a moral issue at all. Whether people save or borrow is a supremely practical matter.

In an era of high and probably rising inflation it makes sense to buy early. This was true for much of the post-war period because interest rates rarely compensated for inflation. In an era of low and probably falling inflation it makes sense to save first and then hunt for the bargain. That is why so many people are heading for the sales this week.