The top five 'flash sale' websites

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It is a shopper's raison d'etre to sniff out the best buys before anyone else. And though the internet is normally a pretty good place to start nowadays, it doesn't quite offer the same nervous anticipation of a dawn start for the January sales or the adrenalin rush of relentless rummaging in outlet stores. But we think we've found a virtual replacement for the shopper's sale buzz.

In these times of unsettled gloom for retailers, flash sale websites have firmly established themselves as the hunting ground for savvy consumers after designer fashion, homeware and travel deals, with some sites casually offering as much as 85% off.

The sites tap into the mindset of shoppers with their open-shut sales windows and bargain psychology so you feel like you're getting something for nothing. Such sites are by no means new and their boom since taking off in 2009 has come under scrutiny, with some commentators suggesting the flash sales bubble has already burst.

But judging by the plethora of sites available, that doesn't seem to be the case.

How do they work? The basic premise of the flash sales site is bulk-buying items direct from the designer or manufacturer - often lines that have finished in store - allowing them to pass on a substantial discount to the shopper. Many of the sites began life as - and some still are - members-only to capture your data and uphold an air of exclusivity when shifting high-end bargains. A boom in the number of these sites means they have had to diversify or evolve to keep afloat. There are now even websites like RetailFetish.com that aggregates deals from a host of different flash sales sites.

The pros and cons in a nutshell are as expected. Pros are you can buy designer clothes, kit out your kitchen or snap up a mini-break for a fraction of the original price, with items delivered directly to your door. On the downside, once the novelty wears off shoppers can suffer from sales fatigue as emails are pinged out day after day alerting you to more and more fruitless sales. There are also rumours of delivery issues, varying return policies and, such is the nature of the flash sales, it is rare you can bulk-buy items to save on postage.

Especially pertinent for those who fancy their chances of picking up a dream holiday in a flash sale is to remember the devil in the details. If you are expected to pay upfront it is worth checking the small print and any terms and conditions attached to your getaway. And like any sales, be aware of the false economy of buying something you don't want or need just because it's reduced.

Here are five of the top flash sales sites to look out for 1. Cocosa (Cocosa.com) Best for: Luxury fashion primarily for women Typical deal: Joie tie-dye dress down to £32 from £216 Launched in 2008 and bought by Harrods mogul Mohamed Al Fayed in 2011, Cocosa specialises in the top-end of designer sales, boasting discounts of up to 85% from designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Missoni. The site was previously invite-only to keep up the elite feel but has since become a simple sign-up site. Having opened a pop-up shop in London during fashion week last year and with rumoured plans to launch a full-price site, Cocosa has gone from strength to strength. If it's high fashion and trendy accessories you're after, Cocosa, with working relationships more than 500 brands, is where you want to be.

2. The OutNet (theoutnet.com) Best for: On trend fashion, shoes and accessories Typical deal: Alexander Wang suede and leather ankle boots down from £595 to £238 The sister site of designer website Net-a-Porter.com, The Outnet opened in 2009 and experienced such popularity that it has since launched its own clothing line, Iris & Ink. It is primarily an outlet site that dabbles in various flash sales with additional discounts but its ethos of huge discounts remains the same. Working with more than 200 top designers and pedalling an image more cool than luxurious, the site also offers styling tips and advice on how to put together certain looks. The site caused a stir and even spawned a Facebook hate group when its everything-for-£1 first birthday celebration crashed its website and left scores of fashion-hungry shoppers baying for blood. Of course, people still turned up to their second birthday party.

3. Achica (achica.com) Best for: Kitting out house and home Typical deal: Gisela Graham 12-drawer unit £39, down from £85 Set up by William Cooper, formerly of Trade Doubler, and Quentin Griffiths, who set up Asos, Achica breaks the mould for flash sales site by catering predominantly for the home, such as furniture, kitchenware and even food and drink. A handy calendar shows what 72-hour sales are coming up in the next few days so you can prep yourself - daily email alerts also let members know when sales are available.

4. Vente Privée (en.vente-privee.com) Best for: Everything and anything luxurious Typical deal: Moncler bomber jacket £490, down from £1390 This is where it all began. Generally regarded as the granddaddy of flash sale sites, the French Vente Privée is credited with creating the flash sale business model and being pretty cool about it too. A huge operation, which apparently includes four full-time staff musicians, the site offers up to 70% off top fashion brands, jewellery and exclusive holidays over 72-hour sales. You have to be a member to see what's on offer and after signing up a daily email will drop into your inbox every morning letting you know what's up for grabs. On the downside, shipping can take up to five weeks.

5. Flight Centre (flightcentre.co.uk) Best for: Holiday deals Typical deal: £65 return flights to Barcelona Travel flash sales sites play second fiddle to the world of the fashion sites but the deals available are all the more impressive. By day, Flight Centre sources the best in discount flights, but every fortnight a flash sale takes hold and users can bag themselves a jet-setting bargain. The site also hosts great offers for hotels around the world.

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