Learning to Haggle

Although I've been really good at scoring inexpensive goodies, I must confess that I'm a beginner when it comes to haggling. Why? As a veteran attacker of retail store clearance racks, I haven't had the need or opportunity to haggle much. There's not much room for haggling when it comes to retail chains unless it's a damaged piece, and the prices are often so low that there's really no reason to haggle. However, that all changed in the past 6 months. When I started shopping at sample sales, I learned that prices are negotiable. When I had to buy a second-hand fridge that was cheap but was definitely not in great shape, I had to talk down the price.

Even when the need and opportunity to haggle arose, I was a bit hesitant. My parents do it all the time and have no qualms about it, but I was held back by a false sense of propriety or decorum, if you will. Somehow I felt embarassed about challenging the price--I was afraid that I'll be bad at it, ask for too low a price, and be laughed off the block. Other times I'd think of haggling as somewhat "declasse," in the sense that it makes a person come across as being really cheap in a really bad way, like someone who is ignorant about "the system" of non-negotiable retail. I came to realize that I was being silly. There's nothing wrong with haggling--the worse that could happen is that your offer is rejected and you'd have to pay for the listed price, and there's nothing "declasse" about it, since businesspeople do it all the time.

My first steps to haggling were small, started with slightly damaged merchandise. I got this one plush stool from Ross, which is composed of 4 legs and a seat shaped as the face of a cat. I really liked it, though it was more expensive than I'd like and had a messed-up whisker (which was sewn into the seat). I knew that I can take out the threads and sew in new whiskers fairly easily, so I decided to ask for a discount. I expected 10%, maybe 15%, but I ended up getting 20%. That really left a mark on how I shop. Of course I'd avoid damaged merchandise when at all possible, but if I'm buying stuff for myself but it's the last one (in my size) and I can't find an undamaged counterpart, I'd go the damaged merchandise discount route. I'm willing to buy clothes with small holes along the seams, but I'm not willing to buy knits with snags or anything with stains. Snags are hard to fix by yourself, or you'd have to pay someone to do it, with no guarantees that it'll look presentable upon repair. As for stains--you don't know what it is (ick) or how hard it will be to remove them.

When I moved on to sample sales, I observed a few things: salespersons are willing to haggle when you reach the $30 mark, if you're nice to them, if you're paying with cash, and if you ask for a reasonable percentage compensurate with how much you're buying. If you're unsure how to proceed beyond the realm of damaged goods, just pay attention to how other people do it. That's how I learned.

-Based on my experiences, people are not willing to lower the price until you hit $30. If you're close, like $28, try to shoot for $25. However, it's not a hard-and-fast rule, especially if all the merchandise is pricier than $30. If you're hitting a ritzier place, you may need to adjust slightly upwards.

-When you're paying cash, sometimes it's hard to give you change. If you're able to offer a nice round number whereupon salespeople won't have to hassle with counting cash, they're more inclined to go with your offer.

-What I meant by a "reasonable percentage" is this: if you're spending $30, don't expect to get $10 off. The less you spend, the less you can get taken off, so if you do spend $30, expect no more than a dollar or 2. The higher you go, the more you can ask for--if you're buying a $50 pair of jeans, you can try to get $45, and so on.

-If you aren't spending that much money, you can still flex your bargaining muscles at checkout. If you've treated the staff with respect while your were rummaging through the sales racks, you might be able to round down to the nearest $5. Additionally, even if most pieces are expensive to begin with and you only bought the cheapest stuff, multiple cheap things = illusion of buying lots ("collective barganing" can be a powerful thing). Both of those factors helped me out at a sale I went to recently. Most items of clothing on "sale" were $40. My total was $43 but was composed of things that were under $20. Instead of haggling on individual pieces, which by all accounts were already "cheap," I waited until the grand total before asking "can we do $40?" Yes, that's the lingua franca of bargaining. Repeat after me: Can we do (fill in the blank)? Very quick, easy, and casual. If they say no, all you have to do is say "that's fine" or "I don't think I'll take it." Who knows? Sometimes you putting stuff down might get them to say "OK, let's do (your amount here)."

-A corollary to the last point: if you're buying a single "big-ticket" item along with a few cheap things, it's probably better to get a reduction on that big-ticket purchase than an overall reduction. It won't make you look cheap because you're trying to get a discount on just one thing, and besides, it won't be likely for you to get a much bigger discount for the little things anyway. Conversely, if you're buying cheap stuff, use the "collective bargaining" method above.

Most recently, my fridge crapped out right before Finals (yes, lucky me, again. Last year it was my car). Since me and my roommate are students, we don't have much money. Most used fridges on Craig's List were $150 and up, and we certainly couldn't afford to get a new one (at least $400). When we saw a listing for $50, I dropped all my plans and went to see it the next day with my roommate, even though we knew that something must be up. Something was up all right, namely the contents of my stomach. The fridge was older than the one that just broke down, and had its own self-contained ecosystem. There were dead flies and green stuff and yellow stuff everywhere. I couldn't believe that people had put food in that thing. I was about to turn away when the seller offered to let us clean the inside with a hose. Well, as long as I don't have to deal with the grossness at home in a small, confined space, I'm OK with that. The seller ended up doing a lot of the cleaning and offered supplies for us to scrub out concentrated spots of nastiness. Before we got down to the serious cleaning, I asked the seller if we can do $40 and he readily agreed. Even though it was really not worth $40, I didn't go lower because he was so nice in helping us clean. So, kindness really cuts both ways in the transaction. It would have been unreasonable to ask for a further reduction after what he did for us. However, this anecdote also illustrates what we've known all along: the asking price is always higher than what the seller aims to get because sellers expect haggling to take place. If you don't haggle, the seller gets a windfall.

That's it for now, folks!

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