IN 'Personal Shopping' on the second floor of Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh, Graham Valerio sits on a sofa reading a newspaper and drinking a cup of coffee. He looks up every now and then to see his wife and daughter. He appears relaxed, a node of calm in the frenzy. It is day two of Harvey Nichols's sale and the first day of many others in Scotland's capital.
At Jenners on Princes Street, a mother and daughter are piling their first 800 worth of sales goods into the car, on a shopping expedition planned more meticulously than Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Along the road in John Lewis, queues for changing rooms begin to snake out on to the shop floor. In the shoe department, boots and sandals litter the floor. A storm seems to have descended on the shopping malls. Perhaps Graham Valerio has it right.
The annual festival of consumption now extends well beyond Christmas, the spree for others turned on ourselves. January sales spend is, moreover, perceived as a barometer of the economic health of any nation.
Even on St Stephen's Day, several hundred shoppers congregated at Harvey Nichols, and Gucci bags were cleared within hours of going on display.
Despite the talk of consumer nervousness before Christmas . . . and recent figures from consumer research suggesting that spend on the first day of sales was down . . .
Edinburgh is flying in the face of that gloom. At Harvey Nichols, sales are up 20% on last year and this is part of a long-running pattern.
The sales are never a gentle experience (unless you're Graham Valerio). All the cliches of consumer gluttony are here: barging and pushing, maxed-out credit cards, whining kids and cranky parents. Sales shopping is a stressful activity. It begins with trying to find a parking space and ends with frayed nerves or an ecstatic high.
One consumer academic has observed such behaviour on many occasions, and says of the sales: "Queuing is one element of it. And the second is the sheer aggression of consumers trying to find that bargain, where it is almost like a fight over a particular product. Sales rage is probably quite a good term for it.
It's not the most pleasant of shopping experiences and when you think that some of these people are seeing it as a leisure pursuitf It's leisurely till you're in the store; then it's mayhem."
Given all this, it seems surprising that anyone braves the shops post-Christmas.
Can 40% off possibly be worth the crowding, the irritation and the palpitations? It seems so, and not just for the bargains. As with all things, there are a number of motivations behind our drive to shop. It is, for instance, often a communal and social activity. Shopping with the family can be like going out for a walk, a tour of a dazzling consumer landscape . . . a shot of adrenalin after Christmas Day's bingeing and sloth.
"We'd been in the house for two days and needed to get out, " one woman tells me. "A bit of fresh air." Different shoppers have different methods . . . private, often ritualised routines for getting to that half-price trophy. They can be summarised in the following categories, all found on the hippest streets of Edinburgh in the past couple of weeks:
1: Shirt Man Shirt Man is just one of a whole series of related shopping types, including Jumper Man, Bootgirl, Christmas Card Lady and, myself, Underwear Woman. All are goal-oriented. They attend the sales for a singular target prey, snare it and leave. Mine is lingerie: new year, new knickers, my personal ritual. I find Shirt Man in an Edinburgh department store cafe at about 9.30am on a Monday.
Going by the name of Alistair, a recruitment consultant, he's completed his mission and is on his way out with five new shirts, reduced from A£70 to A£35, and four ties.
He had come in on the bus from outside the city, arriving at about 8.50am to queue.
Shirt Man says everywhere was more empty than he expected: the bus, the streets, the store.
There was even less of a scrum than usual over the shirt stacks. "The main reason I come is to get good quality shirts at a reasonable price, " he says. "It's all I come for, these shirts, and it's just at Christmas. That's the only time I buy shirts."
Christmas, I would like to emphasise, is not the only time I buy underwear.
2: The Early Birds Surrounded by a wall of bags, they're both talking on their mobile phones at once.
Heather and her mother Annabel speak quickly and giddily. It's only 9.45am but already they've accumulated so much they can no longer carry it all and are arranging for a pick-up for the first batch of shopping.
This is just a breather in a marathon that started the day before. More stores are to come. "I think we do like to get a bargain, " says Heather.
"I think we've done rather well, " adds Annabel, looking down at the sprawl of bags.
She and Heather were second in the queue this morning and have already accumulated about 600 worth of purchases.
3: The Daytrippers For the out-of-towners, a journey into the city centre is a day out in itself. In Harvey Nichols I find Marcella and Gordon, who have travelled from afar for a short spree.
They heard there was a sale on Prada shoes and have already bought a pair each.
"We're not particularly designer clothes wearers, " says Marcella. "We like a bargain more than anything. I normally laugh at people who come shopping on the first sales day, but we're going to New York tomorrow, and we thought with that kind of bargain we're not going to even get that in New York."
One couple in another city centre store have come from even further afield and are making a day of it. Shopping has now become a leisure activity and we're capitalising on it.
4: Christmas Stockers The four flashing snowmen with fibre-optic noses flicker, lonely and ignored. Meanwhile shoppers, like locusts, line the walls, picking their way through the piles of boxed cards. Two days after Christmas, the greeting cards section on the second floor of one store is one of those hubs of activity, a warm spot on the map.
"It's become a tradition for me, " says Barbara, who sends about 90 cards every Christmas.
"I come in for the cards every year. There's obviously a saving of 50% and better quality for the same price.
Because the quality of these is lovely."
Another woman in the queue tells me she likes to get her cards sent off in November. "I don't like to be last minute. Can't stand it.
I'm much happier knowing I've got it all sorted now."
5: The Hold-Outs It's a game of cat and mouse, say the retail experts. PreChristmas, retailers know that many of the consumers are holding out for the sales and the big reductions.
They also know that they're going to want to buy Christmas presents. Hence the ping-pong game of preChristmas sales and one-day specials.
But some people really have the staying power and deliberately save for the sales, keeping their money for when it stretches furthest.
Saima is in a shoe shop with her mother, sister and brother. The shoes are all they're really here for.
In her hands she has 10 pairs of glittery flip-flops. Possibly, she says, she may get all of them. You've got enough money left after Christmas to buy all those, I ask her mother?
"Yes, we save it for the sales."
6: The Reluctant Shopper Disregarding occasional knicker missions, I am one of these. When shopping in a group, I am always the first to drop out and go and sit in a cafe with a book or catch the bus home.
If there's any possibility of avoiding it at all in the first place I will take it.
But when forced by a friend or relative, I will go along, sigh, and moan about the queues, the people, the heat, the noise and the credit card bills. Budge up, Graham Valerio . . . there's room on that sofa for one more.