Think you should haggle only when buying a car or shopping in the streets of Morocco? In this recession, if you're not bargaining for everything everywhere, you're needlessly draining your wallet. According to the consulting firm America's Research Group, in October, 56% of consumers said they had recently tried to negotiate at retail outlets other than car dealerships. Of those hagglers, 50% got deals. When the company repeated the survey in May, 72% of consumers said they had tried to haggle, and a stunning 80% were successful. "What you can do today is unbelievable," says Herb Cohen, an expert dealmaker and the author of the 1980 classic You Can Negotiate Anything. "Americans may finally learn that price tags weren't put there by the big printer in the sky."
In this buyer's market, any item is now fair game. Shoppers are scoring deals on cell-phone plans, meat, furniture, even nursing homes. One Florida woman knocked off nearly half the price of a $3,875-per-month room for her father, who suffers from dementia.
Bargain hunters are also successfully negotiating discounts at big-name chains. For example, Duke Dougherty, a rookie haggler in Williston, N.C., asked for and received 10% off a $4,000 John Deere lawn mower at Lowe's, even though the sale offer had expired. Dougherty, who works in the aerospace industry, told the rep he had his checkbook ready but would walk away unless he got the deal. "Hell, $400 is $400," he says. "It was kind of a trip I pulled that off."
Like many other first-time hagglers, Dougherty started out feeling a little sheepish and ended up finding the process rather exhilarating. But while buyers have the upper hand in this economy, there's still a fine art to the haggle. To learn it, we asked Teri Gault, who runs the popular savings website TheGroceryGame.com to show us her style. Gault turned a cost-cutting hobby into a career and says she gets a runner's high before haggling. She starts talking fast. She's pumped up. She's a bit strange.
But she's good. Really good. First stop is a New York City jewelry shop, where she wants to buy two gold chains. "You've got such a nice selection," she tells the salesman. Always butter 'em up. Gault borrows another sales technique by inching into the seller's personal space not in a menacing, I'm-going-to-steal-something way but in an enthusiastic, we're-on-the-same-team way. At first the salesman looks suspicious but quickly decides that she's serious about buying (and that this isn't a stickup).
Gault scores a discount on one chain and then says she'll buy a second one if the store throws in another price cut. The jeweler agrees. Gault calls this strategy layering: once sellers agree to one deal, quickly hit them up for another. They just might be in a giving mood. Gault pays $215 for $270 worth of jewelry.
Next she heads to Sports Authority. This appears to be a lost cause. The price of a sports watch she wants is $69.97, and the retailer is sticking to it. Yet Gault refuses to give in and offers this Hail Mary: "Is there a box for that watch? If not, can you shave something off?" The result: no box, a 10% discount and a reminder to always make sure no fixin's are missing. Since retailers can't afford to lose you these days, no demand is too peculiar.
At Whole Foods, the upscale organic grocer that frowns on haggling in its pristine stores, Gault scours the bacon packages in search of one whose sell-by date has come and gone. She finds one and launches into shock-and-awe mode, firing questions at the guy behind the meat counter about possible combo deals that would include an unexpired package. After some back-and-forth, Gault winds up with two $6 packages of bacon for free. In the haggling world, getting free cured meat from Whole Foods is like winning the Super Bowl by eight touchdowns. Check those packages.
The last stop is Best Buy. Gault shows a salesman a printout: a webcam listed at $135 in the store is going for $110 on the Internet. The salesman flatly refuses to match the lower price, citing store policy. Gault politely asks for a manager. As seasoned hagglers know, this person has the power to be your best friend.
When the manager arrives, Gault asks her to at least meet her halfway. But the manager does one better and gladly agrees to match the Web price.
"When's the next plane to Vegas?" Gault asks. Four stores, four deals. In today's economy, however, haggling may not hinge on luck. Maybe all you really have to do is ask.
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