London — The woman across the table from me showed no sign of panic or rush. She took an uncompetitive bite of her Harrods Danish pastry -- a late and leisurely breakfast, apparently. You wouldn't think this was the first day of the Harrods Winter Sale. But then (as it turned out), this person was an old hand.
''I come every year,'' she volunteered. ''I buy ties with Harrods labels for my husband's golfing friends. I leave home in Hertfordshire early. Slowed down this time by the snow. I wouldn't miss the first day of the sale for the world. All those posh voices and fisticuffs! Though it is a bit slow getting started this year. The weather. Do you know (another bite) one year some people formed an illegitimate queue on the other side of the street. . . . There was this retired brigadier type near the head of the proper queue, and at 9 when the doors opened, I heard this chap, as The Enemy charged across the road to break in, shouting stentoriously: 'Hold your ranks! HOLD YOUR RANKS!' I think he was more interested in the military possibilities of the event than in buying any bargains!''
I didn't tell the woman with the Danish that this was my first Harrods Winter Sale: Journalists have their secrets. Besides, I'm no killjoy, even though the joys of sales make me skeptical. It seems you either are, or you are not, a sales enthusiast. Certain kinds of shoppers breathe a sigh of relief when February and normality return. To us, sales are occasions when coyote coats and grand pianos are reduced in price from the ridiculous all the way down to the absurd; occasions when people spend far more money than they intend under the blissful delusion that they are saving it; hectic, undignified occasions of tooth-and-claw. But here, on the first day of Harrods Sale 1982, I was beginning to wonder.
Sales in Britain are seasonal. They happen in January and July. (A few stickers cling to windows into late February, but not many.) Of all the sales, the one at Harrods gets top billing. The figures indicate its phenomenal success , though an explanation of its mystique is harder to pinpoint. This year on the first day, (STR)6.25 million pounds was taken in.
''We were very pleased,'' says Jenny Turton, Harrods press officer. In January 1981 the figure had been just over (STR)5 million. On that one day the Knightsbridge store had been overrun with an estimated 300,000 customers who were provided with 21/2 million green and gold Harrods bags, 2,500 meals, attended by 2,000 extra staff, and leaving, to be cleared up after their departure, 13 tons of rubbish.
The atmosphere is certainly palpable. Early on the day the excitement mounts as the assistants (and the press) pour by a side entrance into the store, and the public queues at the 10 main doors lengthen. Some diehards have ensconced themselves in sleeping bags. Are they prepared to sleep in the snow for 20 percent off videos and gas cookers? Or are they after something unique and dramatic like the Emanuel Ball Gown halved from (STR)1,845 to (STR)922? (No sign , however, of the Princess of Wales today.) Surely they can't be after the caviar at 25 percent off.
At 9 there is a countdown synchronized by radio, and the dam of security guards is breached. Up the new escalators, up the stairs, up the lifts, marches a wave of determined humanity (by no means all female), eyes glinting, muscles tensed.
With difficulty I managed to shadow one woman on her complex speed-of-light route to ''Windsmoor Hats and Bridal Room.'' (What she was after, once arrived, was unclear; perhaps she was here for the chase rather than the quarry.) We rushed relentlessly through Housecoats and Leisurewear, swiftly skirting Nighties, into Younger Set and Dress Circle, edged round the International Room, with ''This Season's Courreges REDUCED.'' (In the Ladies Fashions, where the store makes impressive and often last-minute cuts, temporary communal dressing rooms are constructed. If customers don't watch out, they have been known to lose the very clothes they left home in, because some other bargain-hunter has bought them as ''special offers.'') We chopped and charged through a number of other sections of this enormous shop, seemed to lose ourselves for a few moments in European Daywear, found ourselves again in the region of Knitted Hats, and eventually arrived exhausted at our destination.
Breathlessly not wanting to miss anything, I ran down to the special area set aside for the china and glass sale. Plenty of buying fervor here, even though several of the staff were muttering that it was much quieter than last year. The quietness seemed rather relative to me, but apparently it was caused by the snow and a new attempt to spread the load by opening the sale on two days, a Friday and Saturday, instead of just the traditional Saturday. By the end of the morning, however, most of the world seemed to be converging on Harrods anyway, and a great proportion of them on China and Glass.
This part of the sale is as dramatic as any, with eager customers piling Minton tea sets and Royal Worcester ovenware, Crown Staffordshire plates and Thomas Webb crystal, into supermarket baskets and then retiring to a corner to count their grabbings. It is no secret that the merchandise in this part of the sale is ''brought in;'' there are no comparison prices here, as in fashion, linen, or furniture. It is the suppliers, not the store itself, who cut their margin of profit, and they do so willingly because the volume of goods to be sold so quickly is so large. The first three days are all that matter to them.
Courtiers, a company that imports tableware, sold all of its (STR)40,000 worth of cut glass and china in that time. ''Very satisfactory,'' comments John Gooding, Courtiers managing director. ''This sale is really a very sophisticated marketplace,'' he adds. ''Harrods was the first to offer 'good things at good value' in its sale - not just things that are discontinued.
Consumer laws are strict in this country. An imperfect item is labeled as such. Stores are very careful to be correct in their labeling. ''Reductions'' must be ''genuine.'' An item must have been for sale in a shop at its higher price for 28 days before it can be advertised as ''reduced.
Robert Wilson, advertising manager of an old established linen retailer, John Wilson's, with branches in Scotland and England, emphasizes this point. He also claims that some chains of shops do dodge the law by obeying the 28-day ruling in only one branch, then offering large quantities of discount material in another, or in all, of their shops. ''It's almost impossible to police,'' he says. ''I don't say it happens a great deal. But it does happen.'
I asked if he felt British shops would continue to extend the length of their seasonal sales. What began as the one-day clearance sale at the ends of January and July each year (the ''Bright and White Sales'' of linen originated the whole idea) have now become, in large city stores, three-week winter and two-week summer ones.
At John Wilson's in Glasgow the winter sale now lasts from mid-December to mid-February - two months. ''I don't see them getting much longer than that,'' Mr. Wilson says. Jenny Turton agrees: ''I can't imagine Harrods exploiting the sale any more than it is doing.
Harrods, of course, is far from being the only store to have a spectacular winter sale. Selfridges, Peter Jones, Liberty's, Heals, D.H. Evans, John Lewis, Simpsons, and Swan & Edgar join the list. This year Swan & Edgar's sale was, sadly, its closing sale. The cost of modernizing the building overlooking Piccadilly Circus proved too great.
But most of the sales are far from morose. From large prestigious department stores down to the dry cleaners on the corner (offering half-price zippers throughout January), from frenzied last-day-of-the-sale bonanzas, when even sale prices are halved, at Bentalls or Dickins & Jones, down to ''ALL PRICES SLASHED'' at the electrical goods emporium in the side street, and down again to such unlikely events as sales at charity and reject shops (is no one immune?), the whole country seems plastered with incredible, unbeatable value. Clearly the seasonal sale is popular and successful business.
So what have you bought?'' asked the woman with the Danish, eyeing the clutch of Harrods bags I thought I had hidden under my chair.
Oh,'' I said nonchalantly, ''just a couple of gray towels for the bathroom, a pair of tumblers for the kitchen, and an electric sander. It was reduced from (STR)29 to (STR)12, slightly damaged!''
''Very good bargain, that,'' she said approvingly. ''Well. Must love you and leave you. Happy hunting.''
''Same to you. Find some good ties.'' Ah -- well, I thought -- maybe sales aren't so bad after all. . . .
Just then an Arab took her place at the table. He spoke no English. But as he carefully took a test bite of a Harrods biscuit he smiled knowingly at me and held up a bulging plastic bag, green with gold lettering.