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Wednesday, 29 August, 2001, 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK
Belgium postpones January sales
People in Brussels arcade restaurant
Belgian consumers are advised to sit and wait before heading to the shops this January

By BBC News Online's Orla Ryan

Belgian bargainhunters will have to wait longer before they can spend their cash in the sales next year.

The Belgian government has postponed the January sales for two weeks amid fears that price reductions could further confuse consumers trying to come to terms with the euro.

"You would be advertising in Belgian Francs, also saying what these prices are now in euros, but also the fact they are now 25% or 20% cheaper. It would be a huge mess for the consumer to understand," Baudouin Velge, manager of the economic department of the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (FBE) said.

These sales take place twice a year and are the only time retailers can sell goods for less than the price they paid for them.

Rush for bargains

Sales will now start on 19 January and end one month later.

There are some fears retailers will see their turnover fall because of the delay to the sales and the uncertainty about the new currency.

Brussels skyline
Some say the Belgian capital will be completely used to the euro within two weeks
"They probably will have a weaker January month," the FBE's Velge admitted.

However, Paul Vanholfbeeck, a director of Fedis, the Belgian retailers association, believes that retailers often "do not make the most money then, because prices are indeed very low, but these periods are extremely busy."

Search for sales

One fear is that eager bargain hunters will head across the border rather than wait until 19 January.

Minister for small businesses Jaak Gabriels has voiced his fears that Belgian shoppers could go abroad.

"I live on the border with the Netherlands," he said in a newspaper report. "And when there are sales there, people just go there to do their shopping."

Ever the optimist, the Fedis's Paul Vanholfbeeck said: "He will wait 19 extra days to be able to purchase something at half price, and he will not be tempted to go across the border."

Decimal point

One view is that by postponing the sales by only two weeks, it sends a clear message that Belgium expects to be fully euro ready at the end of that period.

But Belgium's neighbors - at least the Netherlands and France - plan to complete their euro changeover before Belgium.

National currencies will cease to be legal tender in the Netherlands on 28 January, and in France on 17 February, compared to 28 February for Belgium and most other eurozone countries.

Another problem is that consumers so far have very little awareness of the new currency and problems could yet emerge.

The real problem for retailers could yet be that small businesses and consumers are not prepared for the decimalisation of prices that is expected to take place.

One euro equals about 40.3399 Belgian francs. With 100 centimes to the franc, centimes are very rarely used.

"Everybody suddenly needs systems in which they use decimals. It is a problem because some machines and computers are not ready for it," the FBE's Velge said.

"In Belgian francs, generally in the global retail sector, decimal prices disappeared about ten years ago. It will be a very big issue," Paul Vanholfbeeck said.

Despite public awareness campaigns and dual pricing, he fears that " the awareness of consumers is still very low....we think a lot of work has still to be done."

Retailers are also set to be at the front line of the rollout, as most people will not have seen or handled the new money before 1 January.

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