Illustration by Begoña Chezz
Just as day inexorably becomes night, so the festive buying of Christmas turns into the annual urban assault course that is the January sales. No longer are shoppers buoyed by the selfless purchasing of gifts for loved ones, now it is all about using left-over cash and/or credit to hunt out bargains. And retailers are all too happy to offer mark-downs, as they seek to make way for the new spring-summer stock as early as possible.
In Catalunya, the timing and duration of the rebaixes is strictly regulated: they can only happen twice a year (summer and winter), with the specific dates being set by the Generalitat.Shops can hold sales for a minimum of a week, and a maximum of two calendar months, and must put their chosen dates on clear display.
Unlike in the UK, where the winter sales now seem to start as the clock chimes midnight on Christmas Day, here it is necessary to wait until after Kings' Day (Reis). This is January 6th, when the Three Kings bring presents for all and remains for many Catalans a more important gift-giving day than December 25th. So for anyone that way inclined, the evening of Reis is the time for taking a sleeping-bag down to El Corte Inglés to queue up for the first bargains. But be prepared for a lonely night, as locals are unlikely to get there until shortly before doors open on the 7th itself.
January sales apparently started in the late 19th century. The London department store Harrods held its first Winter Clearance in mid-January 1894, while in the United States the owner of a Philadelphia department store, John Wanamaker, created the White Sale in the winter of 1878. Wanamaker bought excess stocks of bed linen (traditionally white in colour) to be sold at a discount, to help linen-makers and the staff of his store at a time when business was often slow.
Oh, that retailers were so philanthropic with their discounting nowadays. However, their two main aims seem to be: first, to clear shelves of practical, warm clothes to create space as fast as possible for t-shirts and sandals; and secondly, get rid of over-stocked products that maybe did not sell as well as expected, such as mouse mats featuring Borat and Victoria Beckham's fashion book. In light of the latter, it's unsurprising that the first piece of advice from Montse Sagalés, Subdirectora de Atenció al Consumidor at the Agència Catalana del Consum (ACC), regarding shopping in the sales is to avoid impulse buys. "We always advise this, because although it seems that you are saving money, it's better to buy things that you need," she said.
Apart from the urge to purchase items that a few days before had seemed the epitome of undesirable, the ball tends to be in the consumer's court when it comes to the sales. This is shown in the rules governing the purchasing process during this time, which largely seek to enforce the point that reduced items must be from the current season, have been previously on sale in the shop and in good condition, with the only difference from January 5th being the price. As Sagalés pointed out, reduced goods have to show two prices on the ticket—the original one and the new, lower price. "If the higher price isn't there, ask for it."
Another important consideration is that a shop that normally allows payment by credit card can't refuse to accept cards during the sales, or make a smaller discount if the client wants to pay with one. Both the ACC and the Generalitat's Department of Commerce, Tourism and Consumption carry out inspections of randomly-selected shops to make sure they are sticking to the rules, with about 500 likely to be checked this year.
Significantly, Sagalés noted that if a customer buys something without trying it, gets home and decides they don't like the colour or discovers that all that torró has played havoc with their hips, the shop is under no obligation to change the product. She admitted that most do, but this is one area where shops can change their policy compared to non-sale periods, and may refuse to change it or give a refund.
As at any other time, however, if a product is broken or defective, then they have to offer an exchange. However, it may be that a shop refuses to do so. What is the next step? Every commercial establishment should have fulls de reclamació (complaint forms) and if a customer feels that a shop has acted inappropriately regarding an exchange or refund, they should ask for one (this in itself may persuade the assistant that the customer really is always right). All instructions are in Catalan, Castilian and English and, once completed, one copy (marked Example per a l'Establiment) should be left at the shop. There is another copy for the client and a third needs to be taken to a consumer agency: e.g. an Oficina Municipal d'Informació al Consumidor, or the ACC. The process after that depends on the specifics of the case, according to Sagalés, but she said that the "administration will try to get agreement between the two parties through mediation. If this fails, then it can go to extra-judicial arbitration."
All of this seems like the sales could be quite a pain for businesses. However, for those that do hold rebaixes (and there are many, especially small retailers, that don't), the sales have their own rewards. Last year, it was reckoned that each Catalan would spend €200 on clothes, houseware and electronic goods during the winter sales. A spokesman for El Corte Inglés agreed that it is "an important time of year" for the group, although he declined to call it "the most important" one. The nine stores that the group has in Catalunya will each expect about 300,000 people on the first day of the sales, doubtless setting a lot of cash-registers a-ringing, and providing work for the 20 percent extra staff recruited for the 'winter' period (Christmas, Reis and rebaixes). El Corte Inglés, as a department store with 'everything', also does integrated promotions at this time. This means that not just the seasonal items are reduced, but also those in many other departments, most of which will later return to their original price. Such widespread reductions are a way of getting shoppers through the door, rather than having entire areas ending up with empty shelves.
That, in comparison, is the objective of smaller stores, such as La Boutique-Moda in Provença, a coat and ladieswear shop. "We have to sell off what is left, to make room for new stock," explained owner Antonietta D'Arrigo. "And once something is gone, it's gone." Generally, the sales at La Boutique run from 7th January to mid-February, but the unseasonally warm weather at the end of last year has left Sra. D'Arrigo comtemplating the timing of the 'winter' sales.
Finally, some words of wisdom from the Greek historian Plutarch for anyone planning to go to the rebaixes: "Nothing is cheap which is superfluous." Admittedly, though, he did write them some 2,000 years before the invention of another classic phrase: "Everything 50 percent off."
FOR MORE INFO: Agència Catalana de Consum—tel. 93 484 9300; www.consum.cat—on this website, you can find a list of the Oficines Municipals d'Informació al Consumidor