Pay Dirt: It never hurts to ask

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 1, 2009 - 6:26 PM

Haggling: Shoppers needn't be shy about seeking discounts. A recent survey found that it usually works.

The next time you're out shopping and want to pay less for an item, go ahead and ask. There's a fair chance you'll get lucky.

As the economy has gone downhill, it's no surprise that consumers are asking for discounts on everything from appliances to credit-card fees. But what's interesting: A recent survey found that it usually works.

If you feel shy or awkward about asking, "I'd say get over it," said Greg Daugherty, executive editor of Consumer Reports, which conducted the survey. "Anyone who fears embarrassment or rejection doesn't need to anymore. You won't get thrown out of the store for asking."

The survey found that 66 percent of consumers have tried to negotiate a better deal in the last six months. And they were successful about 80 percent of the time when it came to clothing, hotel rooms, jewelry and appliances. In the 70 percent success range: electronics and furniture. Closer to 60 percent: credit-card fees and medical bills.

Haggling: Here to stay

"Once people try and succeed, they'll keep trying," said Daugherty. "One of the lasting effects of this recession is that people will be more comfortable trying to negotiate prices on all sorts of things."

But it's more than the economy, said George John, director of the marketing department at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. It also has to do with consumers being conditioned to seek out a better price.

Cell phones and credit-card fees are one example, he said. "It used to be something we would not bargain over," he said. "Now, we get a pitch from a competitor and we call and say, 'What can you do for me?'''

Consumers get used to watching hotel room rates and airfares change what seems like minute by minute. And many of them have no qualms about bidding for something on eBay or looking for a deal on priceline.com. "That teaches us something," he said.

Beyond that, being a savvy shopper is in vogue, said Julie Miller of Bloomington, co-author of "The Cheap Book: The Official Guide to Embracing Your Inner Cheapskate."

"It's definitely changed from something people may have felt ashamed about to having a sense of accomplishment, like, 'Look, see what I've done.'"

Before, she said, people would never brag about getting a deal because it was "taboo" to be seen as cheap.

Rules to haggle by

Mark Bergen, a Carlson School marketing professor who specializes in pricing, sends his Introduction to Marketing students out to haggle.

"They came back with their jaws dropped with how much ability there is to haggle," he said.

One group came back with a bag of M&Ms for every student in the class; they negotiated a lower price by buying the entire box from the owner of a corner store.

It's important for hagglers to realize that the store needs to gain something out of the deal, whether it's clearing out product that has sat for a while or moving something perishable that's about to expire.

"Think about it from their point of view, not yours," he said. "The more you want it, the less likely they are going to want to haggle with you."

And remember: You can't always haggle. "Think how hard it would be to haggle at Target if everyone wanted something off one item," he said.

Instead, try to catch a manager in an aisle, perhaps with a seasonal item that's damaged or that the store wants to unload soon anyhow.

And practice makes perfect: "Once you start doing it, you learn it's OK and you'll get better at it," he said.

The retailers' side

Some retailers say they've already negotiated the best price they can so they can pass along good prices to their cost-conscious customers.

Still, asking for a better price is a sign of the times, said Larry Schneiderman, president of Schneiderman's Furniture.

"One manager said we had a customer who asked almost apologetically," he said. "She had heard so much about people who are bargaining and she was wondering what we would take off a sofa and chair. The manager assured her it was the best price out there. She said, 'I just thought I'd ask.'"

Store managers also have noticed that older customers ask to negotiate more often than younger ones, he said.

Schneiderman said their stores don't negotiate because they already offer the best price. But he said managers are always glad when people do ask because it opens the line of communication in an environment where many shoppers just want to be left alone.

"If you don't have your product priced well, you'd never get a chance with these people," he said.

One jewelry store owner cautioned consumers to be careful about stores that pay low base salaries, so it's the employee who loses out as the price goes down, or about stores that charge more with the expectation that some negotiations will take place.

"If the store prices an item so the buyer can barter and haggle with them, it's giving them the impression they are getting a deal" when they really aren't, said Eric Phillips, owner of Carats Jewelry in Plymouth.

Consumers would be better off, he said, if stores took the Saturn approach: Our price is fair. Here's what we can tell you about our product. No negotiating.

But Daugherty likened any transaction involving some haggling to a good business negotiation.

"It's not a matter of one side or another beating the other to a bloody pulp," he said. "It's both sides saying 'What can we work out here that will be a good deal for both of us?'"

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707

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