The art of haggling

Reporter February 18, 2012

We’re conditioned to wait for the sale, not ask for it — and sadly, we might be missing opportunities for deals. The art of haggling, which some still equate with souks or farmers markets, isn’t often used in our big-box world, where sales are fixed with clearance tags. But haggling is an invaluable skill. When used correctly, it can help you score bargains at supermarkets, hotels and even prevent fines or penalties on credit card bills.

“I always say, ‘If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no,” said Jean Chatzky, financial editor at NBC’s “Today” show and author of “Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security.” She said: “There are some things, you should be calling and negotiating every six months: cellphone bills, cable bills, insurance premiums. It never hurts to ask.”

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.

But few people do, because they worry that haggling makes them look cheap, argumentative or even rude. But when you ask for a deal the right way, it makes you look reasonable. When should you ask? Where should you start asking? Experts gave us tips on how to start haggling, or rather, negotiating prices. Whether getting 10 percent off at a spa or a free upgrade on a plane, the ancient adage still rings true: Ask and you shall receive.

Do your research

Competition is tough among retail stores. Many chain stores will match the price of a product on the Internet, so before you buy, browse and find the best deal. “Find a deal online and print it out, and take it to a store with you,” said Teri Gault, founder of savings and coupon Web site The Grocery Game. “It helps your position if you can show them a lower price.”

Mind your mouth

Marriage counselors and hostage negotiators know that tantrums get you nowhere. The same goes for getting a deal. Don’t insult the opposing party. “There’s a polite way of asking for a deal. Don’t say, ‘I want a better deal!’ ” Chatzy advised. “I’m comfortable with, ‘Can you do better?’ You get more with a little kindness and smile.” Many people also make the mistake of naming a price. “It’s disrespectful to tell someone how to do their job, so stay away from ‘I’ll give you X for this’ language,” Gault said.

Choose your strategy

Are you buying a large quantity? Are you a regular customer? Gault recommends choosing your “haggling position” or a strategy before you enter the door. “And never stop with one ask,” Gault said. “Always follow up with another, ‘Well, what if I get two?’ ” If the seller is a giving mood, ask for more.

Location, location, location

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning didn’t start out in a stadium. As with any skill, practice in the smallest of venues, where risk is low. Chatzky recommends learning to haggle on the phone. “It’s easier to ask if you’re not face to face with the person.” Also, try at mom-and-pop stores or places where you can bargain with an owner. “The chains are the Olympics of haggling. It’s exciting if you win there, but many times a clerk can’t help you,” Chatzky said.

Practice makes persuasion

Haggling is an acquired skill. Once you learn the tricks, you have to use them regularly so you don’t lose your touch. “You have to make it a habit, whether online or face to face,” Gault said. “There’s no way to get away from the uncomfortable nature of it, so keep doing it until you become successful.”

Loyalty pays

Sometimes, haggling saves you money on fines you would otherwise have to pay. “It never hurts to point out that you’re a good customer,”Chatzky said. Noting your loyalty — on anything from credit card overdraft fees to library fines — can save you from paying penalties. You can also use loyalty to your advantage with hotels, airlines or rental-car companies. It usually pays to ask for an upgrade. “I always ask [for deals] when I’m traveling because you know the price is negotiable,” Chatsky said.

Build a team

Always ask, “Can you work with me?” Chatzky said. Asking questions and building a team mentality makes it harder for the person behind the register to say no. “You’re getting them on the side,” Chatzky said. “They want to make the sale, so say, ‘My budget is a little lower than that. Can you help?’ Prey on their sympathies.” Find a common enemy in this economy and blame the recession.

Be prepared to walk away

Sometimes the adrenaline rush can cloud your better judgment. Even if you’re getting a bargain, do you need that antique chair? “I definitely always recommend sleeping on a purchase,” Chatsky said. “There are very few things, besides a prescription and maybe food, that you have to buy that day. If you’re going to play hardball, be willing to leave and know you can always go back.”

Pay them in compliments

So you got the deal. Now pay it forward. If someone gives you an upgrade or takes 10 percent off your purchase, fill out a comment card or put in a good word with his manager. If a store goes above and beyond, write a good review on Yelp or tell your friends about your experience. It’s only fair, and it could help you the next time you’re asking for a bargain.

The Bottom Line: Haggling is art of negotiating the price of something. To be successful, you need to build a convincing case. Be prepared with the strategy that will help you state your case and win. Do your research, and remember that kindness goes further than tantrums. Always remember the cardinal rule: It never hurts to ask.

On Sale
AT HOME

Act globally, shop locally. Carling Nichols, which specializes in Chinese antiques and accessories, is lowering prices on select items. A black lacquer console table, once $3,200, is $2,500, and a child’s rocking chair for $850 is selling for $400. Through March 10. Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 1655 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-338-5600.

Now’s a good time to scratch your decorating itch. During Kellogg Collection’s semi-annual sale, furniture, lighting, mirrors, bedding and home accessories are marked down 15 to 50  percent. A pair of Tucker club chairs is reduced 30 percent, from $2,393 to $1,675. A mahogany chest of drawers for $3,587 is marked down to $1,793.50. Through Feb. 27. Go to www.kelloggcollection.com for the addresses and hours of stores in the District, Bethesda and McLean, as well as Baltimore and Richmond.

Alessi, the Italian company known for quirky housewares, is discounting discontinued items and floor samples up to 70 percent. The Birds & Clouds sushi set, priced at $105, is $31.50, and the Mediterraneo tea-light holder is $10.80, down from $36. Through Feb. 29. 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. 3319A Cady’s Alley NW, 202-298-0406. www.alessi.com.

Mark your calendar for the 20 percent off sale on all rugs at Red Barn Mercantile. Friday-Feb. 26. 11 a.m-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. 113 S. Columbus St., Alexandria, 703-838-0355. www.redbarnmercantile.com.

— Janet Bennet Kelly

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