EVERYONE loves a bargain. The rise and rise of the buffet meal is one example and happy hours pack the punters in as though Prohibition was about to be introduced. And, it is the sharp-eyed who will benefit most from the cut-price offers around town. At the New York Deli in Causeway Bay, a small sign in the window quietly informs passers-by that all desserts are half price between 3.30 pm and 5 pm. That makes American cheesecake and apple pie $17.50 and two scoops of Haagen-Dazs ice-cream $22.50. The idea, according to manager William Leung, was to catch the fall-out trade from the Lee Gardens Hotel. Reading the small print on advertisements can also be fruitful. But have a pair of scissors on hand as presentation of the advertisement is often required before any freebies can be claimed. The Maharaja Indian restaurants in Granville Circuit and Wan Chai Road and Trio's in Wo On Lane, Central, offer a free glass of wine, and Denny's Cake Shop in Central has a 20 per cent discount on everything at weekends. Some happy hours are also as happy for eaters as they are for drinkers. The New World Harbour View Hotel has a ''hungry hour'' at Oasis, from 5.30-7.30 pm. For $53 you get one drink and a feast of buffet-style dishes. At JJ's the imaginative buffet spread during happy hour from Monday to Friday - 6.30-7.30 pm - is constantly replenished with Tex-Mex temptations, pizzas and potato skins. One drink, and the food comes free. But get there early to avoid the queues. Image is an important consideration for the territory's upmarket food retailers. This is evident in the fact that only a couple of top hotel bakeries reduce prices at the end of the day. The Furama and the Park Lane are the exceptions. The Furama discounts everything by 50 per cent after 6.30 pm, and has done for five years. ''If we didn't it would only get thrown away,'' said public relations manager Christina Choy. ''It's very popular both with guests and the area's office workers.'' Before the Park Lane Cake Shop moved from the ground floor to the basement, it wasn't uncommon to see a queue in the street at around 5.55 pm. Canny bargain-hunters knew that at 6 pm, all cakes, pastries and breads would be discounted by 40 per cent. The queue may now be out of the public eye, but it is still there. ''The response has been overwhelming since day one back in 1990,'' said hotel representative Carole Wu. Other than a poster upstairs, the scheme has never been advertised. ''Word of mouth is the best advertisement there is,'' Ms Wu said. ''We only put the poster up because the shop is now less accessible.'' Even so, average daily sales between 6 pm and closing time at 7 pm bring in around $1,500. A common misconception is that reduced prices mean food is not fresh. Seibu's food hall learned this by default. Last year, it introduced a discount end-of-day scheme for fresh fish, meat, dairy produce, sushi and sashimi. It only lasted a few months. ''We thought our customers would like the arrangement,'' said food hall manager Ben Lam. ''When the foods didn't sell well, we discovered people who shop here give priority to quality not price.'' Keeping a close eye on stock levels and turnover is the secret to minimising wastage. ''We never have much left over,'' Mr Lam said. ''We only order what we know will sell.'' But Alexis Gavriloff of Oliver's Delicatessen says that occasionally wastage is unavoidable. ''There will always be anomalies,'' he said. ''Trends change for no apparent reason. It may be as simple as regular customers for a certain item leaving town for a while.'' So what does Oliver's do when it finds itself overburdened with peppered goats' cheese or quails' eggs? There is no corporate policy, although it has been discussed at various times in the past. ''We occasionally give things away to charity,'' Mr Gavriloff said. ''If it's past its best it gets chucked.'' Although the foody equivalent of happy hour is not yet widely available, there are plenty of bargains around for those prepared to shop at odd hours. One of the most reliable sources is Park'N Shop. Leave work an hour early and visit one of the larger stores after 5 pm, when the fresh fish and meat cabinets are visited by white-coated staff with sticky labels and pens. Their job? To mark down produce that is nearing its sell-by-date - often by as much as 50 per cent. You take your chance on what will be left on the shelves by this time: it could be chicken drumsticks or something more unusual such as salmon sushi, tandoori lamb chops or smoked eel. Wellcome also operates a ''reduced to clear'' policy in addition to its regular promotions. ''When a perishable product nears its 'best-before' date, we mark down the price,'' said operations director David Young. ''This applies to all our stores.'' Wellcome's reduction depends on the type of product and how much time is left before the best-before date expires. The system has been running for years, but Mr Young said the company's customer-guarantee coupled with good replenishment practices minimised the need to reduce prices.