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" that, we asked experts in various sectors what to look out for and what to avoid.

He advises also watching what the direct vendors such as Dell have to offer.

And firms such as Time, which are high street and direct sale, often have, for the family market, some enticing bundles, which include printers, scanners and digital cameras. "What we always warn against is people buying extended warranties, on which stores make big profits." Finally, there are two areas where the sales may not be the best bet for a bargain.

Fourth, says Mr Hyman, a cyclical trend has been at work.

"Since the mid-1990s," he says, "the general trend has been people switching from self-adornment to home-adornment." So with lots of bargains available, what to get and what to avoid?

The time to get them is now because, for most of us, they are prohibitively expensive the rest of the year." Goods for the home are the other traditional sales purchase.

Gill Smith, deputy editor of BBC Good Homes magazine, says consumers should be wary of any stores, especially certain furniture ones, that seem to have sales constantly on.

Susannah Frankel, fashion editor of The Independent,said: "If there's a lot of something left on a rail, then the chances are it wasn't very good in the first place.

It is far better to buy classic things - things like cashmere coats, cashmere jumpers, or a leather jacket.

But the one area where there is no shortage of bargains is in clothing.

According to Richard Hyman, chairman of retail analysts Verdict, this sector has had a tough time making serious profits for the past year or so, hence the number of clothes shops starting sales well before Christmas and others now about to launch a further round of discounts. First, clothes shops had "two great years in 20, and people replenished their wardrobes". Second, this year has seen no strong 'must-have' fashion trends." Third, margins have been cut and consumers can buy more for the same real money.

Early January: Paul Smith, Floral Street and branches Books, music and movies Now on nationwide: Blackwell's; Blockbuster Video; Books Etc; Borders; MVC; Ottakars; Tower; Virgin; Waterstones; Woolworths From 29 December: HMV From 2 January: WH Smith Now on in London: Copperfield's, Hartfield Road; Dover Bookshop, Earlham Street WC2 From early-mid January: Boosey & Hawkes, 295 Regent Street; Ray's Jazz at Foyles, Charing Cross Road Home and furnishings Now on nationwide: Allied Carpets; B&Q; Bensons; Cargo; Courts; DFS; Dolphin; Dreams; Fired Earth; Furnitureland; Furniture Village; Habitat; Harveys; Homebase; Land of Leather; Magnet; Miller Brothers; MFI; Moben; Muji; Multiyork; Paul Simon Curtain Superstores; Pier; Rosebys; Sharps; Staples' The Kitchen Studio; Wickes From 7 January: Focus Now on in London: Heal's, Tottenham Court Road; Purves & Purves, Tottenham Court Road From 3 January: Designers Guild, King's Road Electrical, computers and cameras Now on nationwide: Carphone Warehouse; Maplin; Powerhouse From 1 January: Dixons; Richer Sounds. From early January: PC World Now on in London: Kingsbury Electronics, Kingsbury Road; Sevenoaks Hi-Fi, Grays Inn Road From 29 December: Coopers Electrical Superstore, Upper Richmond Road.