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Bargaining for Beginners

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Have you ever heard the saying, “Only suckers pay full price?” If that’s true, then I must be a sucker, because I’m terrified of negotiating. Bargaining, haggling—whatever you call it—just makes me uncomfortable. Bickering over prices makes me cringe with embarrassment and I get incredibly frustrated at old ladies in the supermarket who hassle the cashiers for 10¢ off a dented can of soup.


But in this economy, perhaps those old ladies are the smart ones. Who has the extra cash to pay full price for everything? It’s becoming increasingly important to learn how to negotiate for the best deals on the items we purchase. Luckily, stores are becoming more and more willing to work with their customers on that bottom line so they can keep making sales. Anyone can learn to become a champion bargainer—even me. It’s all about knowing how to start.


Where the Deals Are
Certain types of stores are much more receptive to attempts at negotiation. In general, independently-owned retail stores are the best places to ask for a deal, rather than national chains and big-box stores. At an independent store, it’s likely that you’ll be able to talk directly to an owner or manager with the authority to alter prices, a far cry from the impersonal treatment at the Gap or on a Web site. Even when you’re making a purchase where negotiation is expected—like cars, jewelry, and furniture—independent stores are still more generous than chains.


Knowing What’s Negotiable
If you’re buying multiple items, you’re usually justified in asking for a price break. Don’t be afraid to ask, “If I buy two dresses, can you give me a discount on the third?” The worst anyone can ever say is “No, sorry.” To stores, it’s about building a relationship and creating repeat business. My boyfriend and I were recently shopping at an antique furniture store, and after agreeing to buy two dressers, a table, and a cabinet, we asked them to take 50 percent off a set of chairs. The store was happy to oblige us, and so next time we need furniture, their store is the first place we’ll go.


If you’ve been shopping around, mention that you’ve seen the same item for a lower price somewhere else. At a neighborhood hardware store, I was able to get a discount on a vacuum cleaner by mentioning that a nearby chain store was charging less. Independent retailers want to keep their customers, so they’re likely to match competitors’ prices.


If an item has been a floor model, part of a display, hung on a mannequin, or has been sitting unsold for a while, it’s not outrageous to ask a store manager to negotiate. If you’re willing to buy the gently-used demonstration model, why should you pay the same price as someone buying a pristine version? Display products and older models are often tough to sell anyway, so retailers are happy to see them go, even if it’s at a discount.


Big-ticket items usually have the most flexible prices. According to the Department of Commerce, orders for durable goods decreased 2.6 percent in December 2008, the fifth consecutive monthly decrease. This means that for items such as cars, appliances, and furniture, sales are slowing. Unsold merchandise doesn’t do the seller any good, so it’s likely that he’ll be willing to strike a deal with you in order to keep moving through his inventory.  


Cash Is King
Offering to pay in cash is often persuasive, especially if the store is on the fence about coming down on price. Cash sales are a lot less of a hassle for stores and they save the store from having to pay merchant fees to the credit card companies, so they’re sometimes willing to pass some of those savings back on to you. Cash is also a great incentive if you’re bargaining for a service—your hairstylist, manicurist, or dog-walker are all people who’d probably rather be paid in cash, and may be willing to negotiate with you, especially if you’re a longtime customer or you’ve made several referrals.  


Room for Renters
Everyone knows that you’re supposed to negotiate when you buy a house, but renters sometimes have room to bargain, too. Some property owners are hesitant to give outright discounts, for fear of appearing discriminatory, but it never hurts to ask. Landlords are often more receptive to negotiation if you offer to sign a longer lease or pay a few months’ worth of rent upfront. Some landlords will knock a few bucks off the monthly rent if you save them the trouble of repainting or refinishing after the previous tenant. Many cities are experiencing soft rental markets, so if you know that a property has been on the market for a while, it might be an especially good time to make a deal. As long as an apartment or house sits empty, the owner isn’t making money, so they want to find a tenant as quickly as possible. If you have good rental references and credit, you’re a good candidate for a bargain.


Simple negotiating for a new appliance or apartment doesn’t have to feel like haggling for knockoff jeans in a third-world bazaar; I like to think of it as finding common ground between buyer and seller. Savvy shoppers know that there are plenty of times when the listed price is subject to interpretation, and that once you’re not afraid to ask, there are tons of bargains to be found. The more comfortable you feel with negotiation, the more money you’ll save. 

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