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.

But why is this?


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.

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