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Deal or no deal? How to spot a phony bargain

Felicity Hannah

Sale now on! Half-price! Buy one, get one free! In these recession-ridden times, discounts, deals and special offers have become standard marketing practice.

We have less to spend so we want the most for our money – and the retailer that offers us the best deal wins our business.

But sometimes the deals turn out to be just clever marketing. This could explain the number of British shoppers who are so cynical they now ignore special offers.

Deal fatigue

More than 50% of people say they are “immediately sceptical” when they see a special deal, offer or free gift, while one in five simply forget to redeem offers in time, according to a survey commissioned by Nectar eShops.

But just because some retailers overhype tiny savings or mislead customers about their offers, that doesn’t mean you should give up on finding a genuine deal. So how can you make sure the bargain you’re buying is real?

[Related feature: Most vouchers save you no money at all]

Staying savvy in the supermarket

Nowhere is the bargain battle more apparent than the supermarkets. Each is desperate to prove it has best value for money and more deals than its competitors.

Pop into any store and the shelves are covered in signs highlighting money-off deals. But a report by Which? suggests that shoppers are actually being duped into believing they’re getting a better deal, with some prices being inflated to make the discounts look better.

So how can you make sure you’re getting the best prices? You can compare the price of your weekly shop using the website mySupermarket, to find out whether your purchases are cheaper in ASDA, Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Waitrose.

You could also try buying some of your shopping in a budget supermarket like ALDI or LIDL, or downgrading to supermarket-own or budget brands.

Trial and error will show you where the discount brands taste much the same; for example, some budget cereals taste just as good but could save you £60 a year.

In the shop itself

Make a conscious effort to examine all the deals carefully. A multi-pack of beans might sound like a way to save but you may find you pay less per can for a smaller pack. Compare the unit price or weight price as you shop.

Don’t rely on the signs, they can be very misleading. For example, Panorama found that some supermarkets had used labels saying “Now £1.99!” when the price had actually risen. ‘Now’ suggested a fall.

Carry old receipts with you, so you can check previous prices and make sure you’re getting a good deal.

Read more about finding the best supermarket prices in our article ‘A fanatic’s guide to supermarket savings’.

Shopping in the sales

When you’re looking round the end-of-season high street sales, be aware that retailers sometimes deliberately buy too much stock so that it can be reduced in the sale.

This is because they still make a profit on it and they know that consumers like to feel they’re picking up a bargain – which can be what tips the balance and ensures a sale.

Remind yourself as you shop to look at the price and not the discount, so you don’t get carried away by the feel-good factor of finding a discount.

And don’t be afraid to haggle, to get an even better deal; check out our article ‘Can you haggle on the high street?’ for some tips.

[Related feature: How shops trick you into spending more]

Choosing a holiday

Travel is another area where sellers work to create the impression that you’re getting an amazing bargain, but it’s not always the case. For example, ‘kids go free’ sounds like a great offer, but not if the parents are paying extra.

Fortunately, there’s such competition for your business these days that you should be able to find a real bargain. Compare prices online and book outside of school holidays if you don’t have kids.

If you can be flexible about where you’re going then last-minute bookings are a really great way to save as the tour operator has bought the flights and the rooms, and needs to fill them. Try to book just a few weeks before your break for the very best prices.

Remember, you can’t haggle on the internet. If you want to get an even cheaper price than the one advertised then pick up the phone to the tour operator or travel agent and ask.

Buying a car

A car is such an expensive purchase that you’d be crazy not to push for a bargain in the showroom. If you’re in the market for a brand-new car then most sales staff will have a certain number of freebies or discounts they expect to throw in, to make you feel you’re getting a good deal.

However, you can drive an even harder bargain at the right time of year. Shop at the end of the quarter (i.e. March, June, September and December) as staff may be trying to push up their figures to meet sales targets. You can also drive a harder bargain just before new registration plates are issued, as most retailers want to make way for the new reg cars.

If you’re in the market for a second-hand car then look around just after the new registration plates come in. Some people trade in their existing vehicle to buy one with the new plates, so there can be a glut of cars on the market.

Finally, if you want a convertible car then buy it in the colder weather, as there will be fewer buyers and you’ll find it easier to haggle.

[Related link: Search for a new or used car online]