Outlook: In tough economic times, shoppers take haggling to new heights

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Stephen Popick of Alexandria, Va., doesn't take sticker price for an answer. From steaks to bicycles, he always knows how to get the best deals. Join him on the hunt for an iPod touch and pick up some tricks from the haggler's handbook.

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Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Michael S. Rosenwald was online Monday, Feb. 1, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "In tough economic times, shoppers take haggling to new heights."

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Michael S. Rosenwald: Good morning everyone. Looking forward to a great chat. I had a lot of interesting responses to my story yesterday on haggling. Consumers tended to love it. Sales people tended to hate it. I hope to address both sides of the issue during the chat. Fire away, and I'll try to get to all the questions.

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washingtonpost.com: In tough economic times, shoppers take haggling to new heights (Post, Jan. 31)

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Westfield, N.Y.: I own a business and every time I walk into my store and turn on the light, I am starting another day where I lose money. So telling people to go into businesses and haggling for a price where the business is probably already losing money is a great way to help us all go out of business. Why don't you do an article to help businesses stay in business instead of trying to help us all go out of business? We're all just running on the fumes, just barely making it, and then I read articles like this. Thanks!

Michael S. Rosenwald: Thanks for this question. I have a couple thoughts. One: If a person could get a better price from you, rather than going online and having to wait, isn't that good for your business -- not losing business to online merchants? Also, lots of sales people told me that haggling creates more sales. So, let's say you would have four sales a day normally. But with haggling you could have 10. The cost per item may drop, but the volume of sales could go up. Something to think about.

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Kalispell, Mont.: Comment. A funny, readable account of a lowdown activity. I never haggle. People can accept my rates or not, but I won't change them. I'll pay a fair price, or go elsewhere or buy not at all. Hagglers are playing games, always trying to find a personal edge in one-on-one encounters. They're like used car salesmen, black market arms dealers, and Wall Street bankers -- the scum of the earth.

Michael S. Rosenwald: Thanks for your comment. A lot of people feel this way. I felt this way a little too when I started haggling. But then I realized--what's so bad about saving money? Question for you: Have you ever paid the asking price for a house or a car, or have you shopped for a better price on a hotel room or air fare?

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Silver Spring, Md.: I enjoyed the article in outlook. I'm going to ask the tough questions-

Would the Washington Post be willing to give me a free online subscription to my Kindle since I've been a household paper subscriber for the past 15 years?

As a retailer and owner of a small business, I feel everyone is a salesman. With this in mind, would you as a reporter be willing to give your employer a 10 percent discount on your wage if he were to ask?

I noticed in the article, the value of shopping at Nordstrom's -- high quality service, reasonable pricing and a better overall shopping experience. Oscar Wilde said, "Everyone knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." I believe you did not represent the full picture of why someone shops Nordstrom's and many fine retail stores -- they stand behind their products and will work for your future loyalty. Are you loyal to any retailer? I suggest looking atThe 3/50 Project for a better understanding. Thanks for allowing me to voice my opinion.

Michael S. Rosenwald: I can't speak for the Washington Post, but I do know that people are getting better deals on their subscriptions these days in general because newspapers -- and cable companies and cell phone operators -- don't want to lose subscribers. Give it a try. You don't know unless you ask. As for my wages and benefits, lots of reporters in the newspaper industry have taken pay cuts. We take them because the newspapers have something we want -- a job.

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Bowie, Md.: From a consumer perspective, this makes sense, but this may also affect the employees as the business decreases revenue and may be forced to layoff people. What would be your suggestion of a middle point?

Michael S. Rosenwald: Great question. But how it is it different from a company offering coupons? In fact, why would retailers offer coupons if the price is the price is the price? The fact is that's not the case. That's why they offer coupons. They have wiggle room in the price and know how much they can sell it for and still turn a profit. Trust me: retailers wouldn't offer discounts if it was going to put them out of business.

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Frederick, Md.: Great article. We have something in common. I recently went to Staples in Frederick for a computer desk. I saw one I liked very much for $300.00. The floor model was not for sale, but they had one last one. Today's furniture is such that you have to assemble the article yourself. When I saw that last one they had, the edge of the cardboard box was ripped open, and one corner of the side of the desk was chipped, showing the bare wood under the walnut finish. I haggled with the salesman, and got the desk for $25.00, claiming that it was defective, but I would accept it that way. When I got home, I discovered that the chip was tiny, and in such a place that it could not be noticed at all! WHAT A DEAL!!

washingtonpost.com: In tough economic times, shoppers take haggling to new heights (Post, Jan. 31)

Michael S. Rosenwald: This is a great haggle. You found an edge. You were willing to live with a slight abnormality. And you got a great deal. Congrats.

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Columbia, Md.: My contract with Comcast is up in April, I have always planned on calling them in March and see what kind of deal they can give me to stay. I get offers from Verizon FiOS every week and actually have already talked to a representative there. My question, should I go ahead and contact Comcast now to see what they can offer me, or wait until my contract period is about up? Thanks.

Michael S. Rosenwald: Contact them now. These providers hate losing customers. You pretty much have leverage all the time. Be polite but firm. When you call, select the option for canceling your service. This will put you in touch with someone who can really do wonders for your bill.

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Hyattsville, Md.: I'm not a used car salesman, but to characterize all as "scum" is a bit extreme. I think your question to that writer is a good one. Has he/she ever bought anything at less than the original stated price? Is there a difference between negotiating and haggling?

Michael S. Rosenwald: Thanks for this comment. I don't think there's a difference. We haggle/negotiate for lots of things. How many of us ever accept the first salary on a job offer? We play it cool. We say we will think about it. We say we have a better offer. We haggle. And often, that gets more money into our pockets.

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Silver Spring, Md.: There's the crux of the haggler. Always looking for the deal, asking for a discount though unwilling to give one of his own. The flip side of every argument needs to be addressed.

Michael S. Rosenwald: I'm not sure what you mean. How would a buyer give a discount to a retailer? And why?

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New Bern, N.C.: This whole thing makes me angry, as a small business person we keep our prices as low as possible and still stay in business. Every day people come in and ask for a discount, if I start giving everyone a discount I'm going to have to raise my prices to accommodate the discount. Makes no sense. We sell art, pottery, glass. We are all just trying to make a living.

It is exhausting and disappointing to us

Michael S. Rosenwald: I'll come back to what I said at the beginning: What if haggling allowed you to make more sales? There are so many times where I am shopping for crafts and art where if the retailer just budged a little, I would buy. There are millions of people out there just like me -- people who would buy but aren't. If I was a retailer (and I did grow up in a family that had a small business) I'd want more customers, not less.

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Hyattsville, Md.: Have you ever had the experience upon entering into negotiations where the salesperson was able to explain the value of the item in a satisfactory enough way for you pay full price?

Michael S. Rosenwald: Yes. I do pay full price all the time. I happen to like fountain pens and there are certain stores and manufactures that won't haggle at all. If I like the product enough, of course I still buy --- and that's because the sales person does a good job at explaining why they don't need to budge on the price. Apple products are another case in point. They won't haggle. Do I still buy their products? Of course.

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Ottawa, Ontario: As an electronics salesman, and economics major, I can say haggling works if it is worth it for both sides.

I would say it depends mainly on two factors: how busy it is and what the cost (profit for me) of the thing you are haggling about.

Haggling customers to me are a variable cost (decrease my commission), as long as the opportunity cost (how much commission I could get on average with the amount of time I spent with you) is less, I am willing to haggle.

If it is busy, and/or the gadget you are haggling about isn't expensive, then the opportunity cost outweighs the variable cost, which makes me treat the interaction as a preventable fixed cost and I try to get away before it becomes a sunk cost.

So if you are trying to haggle on a $30 CD player when there is a crowd standing next to the 52-inch LED TVs, guess what my answer will be and how fast I will say it while running to the awaiting crowd.

Michael S. Rosenwald: This is a great observation. Thanks.

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North Potomac, Md.: I have to admit that my first thought after reading your article was -- is this the guy that I end up behind in line who has taken 5 minutes of my time to "negotiate" with the customer service person over $1.50 savings?

So, how do you value your time when you're haggling?

Michael S. Rosenwald: As the haggler in my story puts this: The worst place to haggle is in line. A haggler should do his/her bidding away from a line, in private. The line hagglers are doing a disservice to everyone.

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Laurel, Md.: You can't beat the smart phone scan apps, like Red Laser on the iPhone. I used it at Macy's to get a watch on sale for $341 down to $267. Stores that give discount authority to the clerks are going to get the sales.

Michael S. Rosenwald: You hit a great point. These apps are gonna be life changing, I think. They put pricing information instantly into the hands of consumers. In no time in the world's history has this been possible. Retailers used to have all the pricing power. They had the data. Now anyone who downloads a free app has that data.

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Allen, Tex.: A comment: Negotiation is a reasonable approach. However, in the fun you should not lose sight of the times when you feel compelled to lie to get a response. Recall the deal with Verizon. You were not interested in switching services, but you flat-out lied to set your position. Your professional haggler mentioned that he was going to say something to one victim's supervisor -- do you think he did? Me neither -- another liar. You saved $50 per month on Verizon. Is that worth your integrity? Bottom line is you're a liar and I will try to remember your name whenever I log into the W. Post.

All too often commercial interactions almost force folks to lie. It is a sad state of affairs. You have taken the bait. A journalist, but a liar -- great deal!

Michael S. Rosenwald: Do you think companies ever distort reality to win our business? Have you ever read the small print on any offer? Are you aware that Congress is trying to put an end to credit card company deception and poor business practices that hurt consumers? Nobodies hands are clean when it comes to money. Can you honestly say you have never stretched the truth when it comes to money? Not once?

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Washington, D.C.: I'm not really buying your line about "haggling creates more sales." It's counter-intuitive, since haggling takes more time and effort with each customer. What are basing this assertion on?

Michael S. Rosenwald: I'm basing it on my experiences, for starters. I bought things because I got a discount. And except for Macy's, the haggling never took more than a minute or two. That's not a lot of time at all. Don't sales people want to spend time to make a sale? Or do they only want to spend time when the sales is on their terms? If so, is that really customer service?

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Arlington, Va.: I think most of us hate haggling because we prefer to avoid confrontation. Some societies have haggling as a cultural trait. Everyone is expected to haggle and there are almost "rules" to the game. And most people do it good-naturedly. Here I think we see everything as a competition where some one wins and some one else loses.

While I don't enjoy doing it, I have haggled a little at a local camera shop. I could get an item much cheaper from Amazon. I took the item print out with me, told them I could get the item a lot cheaper but that I would prefer to buy it from the local merchant instead. I didn't mind paying a little more to buy locally and because I like the level of service they have provided me over the years.

Michael S. Rosenwald: Excellent observations here, I think. Very interesting.

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Washington, D.C.: There's a huge difference between haggling with a sales associate at Office Depot or Walmart over a damaged floor sample, and haggling with a small business owner who sells unique merchandise out of one store. The former can handle reductions on its margin, while the latter can't. Haggling is going to benefit the large over the small every time.

Michael S. Rosenwald: That may be the case. I'm not sure how to resolve that issue, and it saddens me because I grew up in and around small businesses. We all need to make decisions when it comes to the issue. For me, I tend to no longer buy books from big retailers, and I pay a little more to buy them from local stores, because I care about their survival. I enjoy the community they bring to the book buying experience. Because I value that, I pay more, and I would never ask for a deal there.

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Silicon Valley, Calif.: If you ask and the salesperson says no, do you take that as the final answer or do you push a little first? How do you decide when they're not going to budge and you're wasting your time?

Michael S. Rosenwald: You can tell pretty quickly if someone is going to end up making a deal with you. I think it's just a feel that you develop. A few minutes I would say tops.

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Bethesda, Md.: What do you think of the flip side to haggling: might sellers start using more tricks? I already am tired of so many purchases having clauses in small print that no one reads where one learns something the customer expected in the large print is not what the customer gets. Might haggling only drive more sellers to find even more tricks on customers?

Michael S. Rosenwald: That may be the case, but they do so at the risk of losing customers. Buyer beware, always.

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Bethesda, Md.: "Michael S. Rosenwald: I can't speak for the Washington Post, but I do know that people are getting better deals on their subscriptions these days in general because newspapers -- and cable companies and cell phone operators -- don't want to lose subscribers. Give it a try."

We "accidentally" got a deal from the Post when we called to cancel our 7-day service last year. The agent we spoke to convinced us to get just the Sunday paper for 60 cents/week, but the paper is still being delivered every day...savings: $20/month!

Michael S. Rosenwald: I post this without comment, because I love my job.

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Michael S. Rosenwald: Here's a question I'd like to post to retailers: Have you ever haggled for a better price on your goods? Why is it okay for you to haggle on the cost of your goods? My assumption is that every retailer haggles on the price of their goods, for the same reasons consumers might haggle -- to pay less.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The Red Laser app is being used by retailers also. The ability to scan your own products to make sure you're competitive against other retailers. Some retailers are not allowed to put products online according to contractual agreements with their manufacturers and distributors. The Red Laser app will show if these products are online. Then as a retailer, you can turn around to your suppliers and give them a choice...continued business with the store or no sale.

Michael S. Rosenwald: Very true. The retailers are working with the apps. The app I wrote about, ShopSavvy, is selling advertising to retailers who want to win a customer's business as they are haggling. So if you are standing in Walmart about to buy a TV and you scan it, and Best Buy can offer it at a better price, Best Buy will pay the app to alert you.

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Take this to Subscription Sales: I've subscribed to the Post as a daily customer for more than 20 years. Yet the Sunday-only subscribers are always getting the big deals: Subscribe for X weeks for only $peanuts. Makes me want to let my subscription lapse and then reup. How about giving the long-time subscribers a break every now and then? A loyalty bonus, if you will.

Michael S. Rosenwald: Give 'em a call and ask. Asking is free.

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Baltimore, Md.: I have done this haggling on a few occasions with Sprint and Comcast after I felt I had been loyal long enough to deserve to get better prices. It usually worked -- they would get a renewed contract for 2 years, but I'd get more services and a cheaper rate. We both felt better.

When I lost my job, I was surprised how Honda, Sallie Mae, USAA and other big businesses were kind enough to delay my payments (for up to 6 months in one case) when I told them my situation. Just thought I'd share.

Michael S. Rosenwald: Thanks for sharing this. Hope everything works out for you.

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Arlington, Va.: I frequently use Best Buy's price matching policy to save a few bucks. Earlier this month, I purchased a hard drive for my laptop at Best Buy because it was close. This past weekend, I noticed the same product at a local competitor that was $20 less than my purchase price. I headed to Best Buy to get the discount that same day.

I will also by CDs from Best Buy after searching other Web sites for lower prices. I'll bring the competitor's ad on my iPhone to the BB customer service rep. They seem to look for any reason not to match the price, but eventually do.

Even if I see the same product for a lower price at a competitor's ad, I'll still buy from BB because they will match the price and I live 5 minutes from BB.

Michael S. Rosenwald: I heard from a lot of readers who are shopping in the exact same way.

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Loved the Article: I was first exposed to haggling/negotiating on a trip to Cancun many years ago. I was not good at it. I like the idea of negotiating but don't do it that often. I hate to shop so I research an item carefully and where I can purchase it before going to any stores. If the price is fair (i.e., one that I can live with), then I purchase it. If I think I can get it somewhere else and I have the time and am in the mood, I'll negotiate. Ultimately, it's about how I value my time and the item I am about to purchase. Loved the article though. It's just another perspective (and lifestyle apparently for some).

washingtonpost.com: In tough economic times, shoppers take haggling to new heights (Post, Jan. 31)

Michael S. Rosenwald: Thanks for commenting.

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Baltimore, Md.: Wouldn't you save more money by just not buying so much stuff you don't need?

Michael S. Rosenwald: Of course.

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Rockville, Md.: As a consumer, I don't feel the need to haggle. If I can buy it cheaper online somewhere, that's what I'll do. There are plenty of sites that compare prices, or where deals are posted. If you know what you're doing on the internet, you can save PLENTY of money without the hassle of haggling.

Michael S. Rosenwald: You are correct. And I think small retailers need to pay attention to this comment. More and more, people will just click around the internet. Retailers must adapt to this new reality.

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College Park, Md.: How can you argue that haggling benefits the small business owner due to increase sales volume, but at the same time say that you don't haggle at small bookstores because you value them and don't want to put them out of business? Either haggling is good for small businesses or it isn't.

Michael S. Rosenwald: You are right. I should haggle at the book store. But in the case of books, I choose to be an unwise consumer. Life is full of contradictions -- and there's one of mine.

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Rockville, Md.: Sometimes just showing a little shock at a price quote can get you a discount. Once I went into one of the big Auto Tire places and when the sales person quoted my the price for a set of 4 tires for my 4x4 truck I let out a "Good God" and he proceeded to give me a 20 per cent discount. My question -- how much leeway do tire and auto parts store have to give out discounts?

Michael S. Rosenwald: Ha! Great observation. I think tire stores have a lot of leeway, from what I've heard from people who have made deals there before.

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Silver Spring Retailer: Yes, I negotiate with my suppliers for better pricing, terms and or discounts for many reasons -- sometimes I'm able to pass the savings on to my customers, sometimes to display the newest latest product which may not sell quickly, and sometimes to be able to make a living wage for myself.

Michael S. Rosenwald: Thanks. Consumers do the same, only in reverse.

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Michael S. Rosenwald: I want to thank everyone for a lively chat, even if many of you didn't like my story. One of the great things about working for the Washington Post is the passion and smarts that readers bring to stories no matter what the topic. I encourage all of you to keep pecking away at us. It makes us sharper (I hope). Thanks again, and enjoy your day.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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