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What to buy and how to shop smart in the sales

How to check if a 'special offer' deal is genuine

By Matt Clear

Article 4 of 6

Don't get duped by dodgy deals in the January sales. Follow these tips for how to tell if that 'special offer' you've got your eye on is genuine.

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Our investigations have consistently found evidence of shops exaggerating and bending the rules on special offers to make them look better than they actually are.

So before you rush headlong into impulse-buying a discounted coffee machine or tablet, read on for our advice on how to work out whether a deal is real.

How to check whether a special offer is genuine - our top five tips

1. Check the price of the product on offer across multiple shops. This is the most basic check you can do, but our research has found that not all shoppers do it when buying in the sales.

We've often found that more than one shop will sell a product at a similar price, but there's only one that's claiming that the price is a special offer.

For example, if four shops are selling the same washing machine for £250 but only one is claiming it's a special offer at 'Now £250, was £300', it's a pretty good indicator that the price is not a special deal.

Of course, if you're happy to pay £250 for that particular washing machine, that's fine. But don't snap it up on the grounds that you think you're getting an unusually good deal.

2. Check the price history. Use our reviews to make a shortlist of the products you want to look out for. Make a note of the current price at the same time.

By taking note of prices before you hit the shops, you can check how any discounts compare to the usual recent selling price.

Some sites, such as Pricerunner and CamelCamelCamel, also show graphs of the historic price of products. Pricerunner gives an average across shops, while CamelCamelCamel only shows Amazon prices. The price predictor function in our reviews of washing machines and TVs also show historic prices over the last few weeks.

3. Look out for notes or signs explaining offers. The rules that govern special offers are vague. In some instances, shops can get away with using older 'was' prices if they put up a sign explaining the offer. Tactics like these can make offers look better than they actually are.

We've seen notes that explained the product was actually only at the higher price for a fortnight, six months before the current offer.

We've also seen these notes in many guises. From the relatively explicit to the completely buried - where we've had to scroll through 10 screens of small print in order to uncover some vague wording about the offer.

Technically, the latter isn't allowed. But it doesn't seem to have stopped some shops from deploying this as a technique.

4. Be wary of 'was prices' or RRP comparisons. Offers like ‘was £100, now £50’, in our experience, exaggerate the discount you're actually getting.

Shops are supposed to use the most recent price that the item was sold at for 28 consecutive days or more as the 'was' price. But our research has found many cases where the shop didn’t use the ‘was’ price it should have – and few where it had.

The RRP (recommended retail price) is a manufacturer's price, and any RRPs used are meant to reflect the current market value of that product.

However, we've found instances where the RRP the shop was using to compare the current price against was out of date, so didn't reflect the current value of the product.

It's much better to check against other shops' prices to try and work out the true cost.

5. But do try to find out what the real RRP is. Not all manufacturers have RRPs, but some do and choose to show them on their own websites. If you have a product in mind that you'd like to buy, check the manufacturer's own website to find out what the true price is.

We found a couple of 'special offers' in 2015 where Argos was selling the product for more than the RRP, despite claiming it was a discount.

How to get the most from shopping in the Boxing Day and January sales

Getting the most from shopping in the sales isn't just about avoiding dodgy special offers. There's no point getting a good deal on a bad product, as you'll end up wasting your money on something that's not right for you. So check out our reviews first so you know what you're looking out for.

To find out the top products that we recommend, you can skip straight to some of the most popular product categories using the links at the bottom and side of this page.