March 26, 2009 -- The new mantra for this recession is: Let's make deal.
Everything is negotiable these days, whether it's the cable bill, cell phone, rent, a new refrigerator or even that visit to the doctor's office. Stores that once refused to budge on price now are more likely to quietly cut their prices thanks to slumping sales.
Researchers say that more people than ever before are trying -- and succeeding -- at haggling for price reductions.
The key is: Don't be afraid to ask. You might be pleasantly surprised.
"The rules have changed," said Sue Perry, deputy editor of ShopSmart, which is published by Consumer Reports. "The economy, as we all know, had a downturn and retailers are hurting and consumers are hurting."
Haggling for a Christmas tree or at a flea market is expected, she said. But never before was it commonplace in regular stores.
"The minute the economy starts getting better, retailers aren't going to be so hot, probably, to negotiate," Perry said. "But right now, it's better to have a customer in the store haggling for a better price than five in the parking lot."
The best deal comes, she said, if you notice a slight imperfection that you can live with, say a shirt with a tiny sewing mistake or missing button or a piece of furniture with a small nick. Perry also suggested being friendly with the salespeople and asking if they have any coupons. There might also be a discount for paying in cash.
"Always ask," Perry said. "The worst you can hear is 'no.' But these days, the stores are more willing to be lenient and work with you. If you don't ask, you could be kicking yourself."
As recently as the first week of March, some 72.4 percent of shoppers surveyed said they had tried negotiating a price at "a retail store excluding car dealerships" in the past three to four months, according to a report by the consumer research firm America's Research Group.
That figure is about the same it was around Christmas 2008, but up 16.4 percent from December 2007.
Ten years ago, only 32 percent of the 1,000 shoppers surveyed nationwide said they were comfortable haggling.
Be a Smart Shopper
The recession, the Internet and word of mouth all account for the uptick in haggling, said Brit Beemer, chairman and founder of the research group, which has conducted the survey for the past 30 years.
"First of all, a lot people are facing economic problems in their household budgets and looking for help," Beemer said. "Secondly, people report having more confidence in negotiating because they've negotiated or placed bids for good online on sites like eBay. The third factor is simply that people are talking with their friends about it more."
Beyond just haggling more, people are having more success with negotiating.
"A year ago, consumers said they were successful getting a price down only half the time," he said. "This December, people reported being 80 percent successful. Retailers are more desperate now than ever before. Two years ago, retailers would have said 'No.' Now, if the price is reasonable, they may accept it," he said.
The shopping discounts don't end with haggling. Some bargain hunters are skipping the supermarket and buying their groceries at auctions. That's right, consumers these days are bidding on everything from frozen foods to dry cereal.
The items might be unwanted by supermarkets, damaged or even past their sell-by dates. But that doesn't matter to the bargain hunters who attend the auctions: They're out for a good deal.
But there is a strategy to getting the best deals.
"Don't just walk into a Wal-Mart or grocery store and try to start haggling for the first item you see on the shelf that you want. You have to be a smart shopper," said Rick Doble co-author of "Cheaper: Insider Tips for Saving on Everything."
"When an opportunity arises, you have to use it to your advantage," Doble added. "Look for items on close-out, that have already been reduced because that means the store wants to get rid of them. In the supermarket, it's easy to haggle for things that are about to expire -- bread, fruit, cheese, meat, dairy products, just about anything with a date on it. If it's near or past the due date, you can get 80 to 90 percent off."
Bargain for Hotels, Hospitals and Credit Cards
Doble said hotel prices were always negotiable and recommended contacting the specific hotel at which you wished to stay rather than contacting the company's central booking office.
Prices on big ticket items, like washing machines, lawn mowers and computers, were generally negotiable, he said.
Bargains are particularly easy to negotiate for close-out items, floor models, or gently used products, he said.
Two places haggling works, which people don't typically think to negotiate, are with their credit card companies and their hospital bills.
"You can get credit card companies to drop your interest rate. I negotiated down my rate from 20 percent to six percent," he said.
Dobler estimated he has saved up to $7,000 a year through negotiating.
The deals are everywhere, from the phone company to gym and health clubs.
Before calling your phone or cable company, know your payment history. If you make regular on-time payments, say so. Also, ask for the company's customer retention department, a team set up specifically to try to keep your business. And don't be afraid to mention offers from competing companies.
It also pays to speak to the right person.
A floor clerk might not be authorized to give you a discount. So ask for the store manager or owner.
The more you buy, the more you should ask for a discount. If you are buying multiple products or services -- say a manicure, pedicure and waxing -- you might be able to save more. And yes, services are negotiable, too.
Do your research: Compare prices before shopping. Find the lowest price before going to the store. Bring a print out with you.
Finally, ask if there any kind of promotion coming up that they might be able to extend to you today.
"It does take a little bit of courage to speak up," ShopSmart's Perry said, "but right now everybody is hurting and if you can shop a little smarter, if you can get the price lowered a little bit ... it all adds up and makes your bottom line better."