IT is the post-Christmas tradition that strikes excitement into some - and dread into others.

Last year Britons spent £4 billion at the Boxing Day sales, with die-hard shoppers queuing up overnight to bag the biggest discounts and Scots high streets and out-of-town shopping centres welcoming their biggest crowds of the year as consumers sought refuge from the festive cabin fever.

Retailers disappointed at pre-Christmas sales are already working hard behind the scenes in preparation for Boxing Day, even while those of us who are still trying to compete our Christmas shopping can’t have failed to notice that many stores are offering significant discounts already.

But whether you’re doing anxious last minute Christmas shopping and hoping to make your gift list budget stretch a little further, or waiting till Boxing Day to bag a bargain, according to the experts it’s probably worth taking a moment to step back and consider your strategy before hitting the shops.

According to Gary Caffell, deals editor at consumer website Money Saving Expert, it’s always best to think before you buy.

“All retailers are all trying to get you through the door to spend more money, it’s as simple as that,” he explains. “They do the same with Black Friday in November, and the pre-Christmas sales, then it becomes all about Boxing Day.

“Just because something is in the sale, don’t assume it is being offered at a good price. We’ve seen in the past that prices are sometimes inflated in advance of sales, so it’s useful to pay attention to products you are interested in before they are marked down.

“Do your homework. There are so many sales on and retailers all offering roughly the same sort of discounts, trying to undercut one another. Do price comparisons and make sure you are getting the right deal for you.”

Money Saving Expert, set up by consumer champion Martin Lewis, urges shoppers not to get too carried away in the moment, particularly when it comes to Boxing Day, when retailers may simply be looking to get rid of unloved and slow-moving stock.

“Retailers are extremely good at making things look like a good deal, especially just after Christmas,” adds Mr Caffell. “If there is a big discount, think about why that might be. Is it really such a good deal or just stock nobody wants?

“This is a tricky time for customers. There’s no hard and fast rule, but if you’ve done your homework and see something you want at a good price, you have to weigh up whether it is worth pouncing now or waiting to see whether the price will go even lower.

“If you see something you’ve wanted for a while at a good price, go for it. But if it’s an impulse buy, take a step back and ask yourself - is this money you weren’t going to spend, and is it really worth it?”

And he suggests paying particular attention to the price tickets on items this weekend.

“Often tickets are marked with letters, figures and colour coding to indicate that the item is going into the sale. If you’ve got your eye on something now, you might want to hold off till Boxing Day.”

As the rise in consumer and comparison sites highlight, the internet is continuing to have a big influence on how we shop, whether we are sitting at home on the sofa or braving the crowds on the high street, offering us a range of tools to find and compare the best prices. Research shows we are far less loyal to individual retailers than we used to be, particularly when it comes to purchases such as electronics.

David Pierotti, general manager of Silverburn shopping centre in Glasgow’s south side, and Scottish chair of shopping and leisure body Revo, says the internet has made shoppers increasingly shrewd.

“Customers are far more savvy than they used to be,” he explains. “Our customers spend an average of 120 minutes with us, surveying the mall, taking pictures of products and making notes, and if they see what they are looking for at a good price, they’ll buy.

“Before Christmas they tend to come in with a defined list of who they have to buy for, and they compare prices and go from there. There are some tempting mark downs at the moment, with particularly good deals on things like jewellery and winter coats.

Scotland is the test market for all UK autumn and winter stock, which is why you’ll see far more outer wear in the sale. Debenhams and M&S currently have reductions of up to 50 per cent.

“We’re also seeing lots of ‘buy two, get a third free’ multi-buy deals. You might not get the mark down, but you’ll get more for your money.”

Mr Pierotti believes consumers are looking to weigh up how low the discounts will go, particularly on Boxing Day.

“Boxing Day and the 27th of December are still really big days for retailers,” he explains. “Of course, I remember the January sales of old, but now we focus on the more European idea of going shopping after Christmas.

“Many of the big retailers start their sales online on Christmas Day, letting customers see what’s out there. It’s all about making sensible decisions – if you see the product you’re after at the good price, buy it. Will it still be there if you wait another couple of days for a bigger discount? That’s the risk you take.”

“Retailers are pretty savvy, but increasingly so too are the consumers. They have to work a bit harder to tempt us to part with our cash.”

And he points to different psychologies and dynamics around shopping pre and post-Christmas which he says influences the products we buy.

“Gift cards are becoming increasingly popular - at Silverburn we’re already up 10 per cent up on last year,” says Mr Pierotti, who has worked in retail management for more than 20 years. “It doesn’t feel as naughty to splash the cash a bit when you are spending a gift card or voucher. You’re willing to take more of a gamble because it’s a selfish, pleasurable enjoyment.

“You see families splitting up in the centre, arranging to meet back later, going off to spend their money separately. And you still see lots of dads sitting around looking bored, of course.”

Boxing Day for Mr Pierotti also means an early rise to cater for one particular group of bargain hunters.

“It’s always fun to see people arriving in the middle of the night for the Next sale, which opens this year at 5.30am,” he says. “Next sale customers are very loyal, probably because the store only marks products down a couple of times a year and Boxing Day is a big, old-fashioned 50 per cent minimum sale.”

And though every day is technically a shopping day for a mall manager, does he get tempted on Boxing Day?

“I’m always in the market for a bargain,” smiles Mr Pierotti. “I’ll be on the lookout for suits, and if the price is right I’ll buy them and put them away for later in the year.”