Why you should spend no more than 23 minutes at the sales

Boxing Day sales

If you spent a hellish few hours with the world and his wife trawling through the packed Boxing Day sales, then we've got some bad news. Researchers have claimed that after just 23 minutes in the throng, you lose your ability to spot a good deal, and are far more likely to waste your money on rubbish.

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Researchers at the University of Bangor and experts at shopping psychologists SBXL, used brain scans of people doing a 'virtual' supermarket shop. The scans were designed to test their reactions to promotions and special offers.

The shoppers were asked to imagine they were shopping for a party and asked to save as much money as possible. Images of generic versions of various products, combined with an offer, were projected onto a screen. Participants were asked to push a button to choose how many items of the product to purchase, before moving on to the next item.

The offers included discount offers, multi-buy offers such as 2 for £2 or 3 for £4 and "special offers" which had no information about savings. Some of the offers actually cost more than the original price.

Poor at assessing deals

They released their preliminary findings, which revealed that even when shoppers were fresh to the task they weren't brilliant at spotting a good deal - the average shopper picked out 60% of good offers. Older shoppers performed significantly worse.

SBXL's managing director Phillip Adcock added that we're generally not good at spotting bargains when there are too many discounts and reductions around. He explained: "We know from previous research that the brain behaves illogically when faced with the sort of information overload that shoppers are faced with .... Nearly 20% of shoppers are likely to put special offers in their basket even if they are more expensive than the normal product, and nearly half of shoppers ignore buy-one-get-one-free items and only choose one." We reported on the detail of this research back in May.

23 minute time-limit

The researchers told the Daily Mail that people's ability to detect deals also started to fall as time went on. This was because to begin with they were using the pre-frontal cortex - which we use for complex decisions. However, we soon get tired of thinking this way, and after an average of 23 minutes we fall back on things like the insular cortex, which is more instinctive and relies on assumptions and rules of thumb - which can lead us astray. Dr Helen Morgan, a member of the team commented: "Instead of working things out, our brains take shortcuts, and may guess that an offer is good."

The newspaper added that a short break improved matters temporarily. It seems, therefore, that your best bet is a quick 23 minute shop, followed by a relaxing coffee, and another quick burst of activity in the sales. After that, you run a very real risk of returning with a set of nasty-smelling scented candles and a novelty mug.

It makes you wonder how much of the £2.8 billion spent on Boxing Day (by 10 million shoppers) was wasted, and how many people who were queuing all night outside Selfridges are now sitting at home, staring at their purchases, wondering whether making a major purchasing decision after a night without sleep was such a tremendous idea.

It also makes you wonder whether the best approach to the sales is to join the scrum, or to sit at home and do the lot online. Internet shoppers spent an average of 40 minutes online on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. If they stopped for a cuppa in the middle they may have unwittingly found the ideal approach to the sales.

Seven of the craziest supermarket glitches
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Why you should spend no more than 23 minutes at the sales

One of the most popular glitches, was a wine deal at Tesco back in November 2012, where a series of offers clashed, leaving a bottle of £9.99 wine selling for £1.50.

The 'three wines for £10' deal apparently clashed with a '25% off when you buy six or more bottles' deal. The 25% was accidentally taken off the original price rather than the reduced one, leaving the wine at rock bottom prices. Deal-hunters cleared the shelves around the country.

Perhaps the most popular glitch from Tesco came in June 2011, when instead of taking £4 off the cost of a £20 case of beer, the supermarket accidentally started selling the cases for £4. The ensuring rush was nicknamed the 'beer stampede'.

Sadly not every supermarket pricing glitch comes with such a happy ending for consumers. In March last year the bargain-hunters thought their luck was in, when Tesco accidentally priced the new iPad at just £44.99 instead of around £650. Sadly it spotted the mistake before shipping the goods. The small print on its website meant it could refuse to sell at this price, and refund their customers instead.

In September 2012, Asda was responsible for one of the most expensive glitches. The Asda Price Guarantee offered vouchers to customers who could have got their shopping cheaper elsewhere.

However, when certain trigger products were in the basket, the supermarket massively under-priced the shopping at other supermarkets, and offered huge vouchers to shoppers. In many instances the vouchers came to roughly the same as the cost of the shopping.

In April, a mistake on their website resulted in Tesco selling 8 packs of Bulmers cider 568ml bottles for £5 - rather than a six pack for £8.

Deal-hunters snapped up the deal online, and had varying degrees of success. Some had their order delivered in full, others had six delivered for £5 - and were able to negotiate their way to another two, while others were offered six for £5 or their money back.

October last year saw one of the most famous glitches, when Tesco Terry's Chocolate Oranges were subject to two deals at the same time, and the price dropped from £2.75 to 29p. There were plenty of people getting chocolate oranges last Christmas.

A buy-one-get-one-free deal went awry at Tesco in March. People putting four tubs of I can't Believe It's Not Butter or Oykos yogurt packs into the trolley were only being charged for one.

Soon the online deal-hunting community was in action, with one person bagging 50 tubs of butter and 22 pots of yogurt for £8.79 - a saving of £133.89.

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