Haggling 101: Finding Hidden Deals

No matter how large the store, experts say haggling pays off.

January 8, 2009, 12:12 AM

April 11, 2008 — -- At open air markets in Turkey, they call it "pazarlik." In Mexico, they call it "regatear." Speaking in Yiddish, my grandmother called it "handel." Here in America, we call it haggling. And most of us don't like to do it unless we're forced to -- like when we buy a new home or car.

In fact, haggling makes some people so uncomfortable they'll hire professional hagglers such as car shopper Phil Landers of NoMoreHaggling.com or jewelry shopper Nina Johansson of Shangby.com, to do the dirty work for them.

That's because American consumers tend to assume most prices are non-negotiable. Right? "Wrong," said Teri Gault.

Gault, a self-admitted haggling expert, said there's never been a better time to haggle, given our weak economy.

"I've always gone in and asked for discounts," she said. "But possibly they would expect it even more now. If you're worried about making your bills get paid or making ends meet, this is a good way to start saving some money."

And Gault knows. She came up with a couple of consumer Web sites: TheGroceryGame and TeriToday to save consumers money. Now she's rich and doesn't need to haggle, but she just can't help herself.

"I get an endorphin rush from saving money," she said. "It literally is like a runner's high."

Most of us, though, don't have the gumption to bargain down a price with shopkeepers. In fact, lots of people find haggling embarrassing. Up until working on this piece, I know I did. But Gault told me that once you start doing it, you'll probably change your mind.

"Salespeople actually enjoy making you happy," she told me. "And you're just asking them to help you get a better price."

According to Gault, most prices are negotiable -- even at chain stores like Best Buy and Macy's. To show ABC News how she haggles, Gault spent a day shopping in New York City wearing a hidden camera.

A good place to start haggling, she said, is on big ticket items, like furniture. Gault went into Sam Flax, a design store in New York City, to buy a kitchen stool. At first, she was not successful.

"Can you give me anything off of it, like say 20 percent off?" Gault asked a clerk. He responded, "No!"

She then asked another clerk who also told her no. But if at first you don't succeed, try Haggling Tip #1: Ask for the store manager or owner. They have the authority to give you a discount.

Gault finally asked the manager at Sam Flax about getting a discount on the stool. "It's $169," she said. " I was wondering if you could give me a sale price on it?"

Right away, the manager agreed. "Our sale price is $129," he said.

I asked Gault where the store manager came up with that number.

"They have a certain margin and they know what they have and he just took $40 off," she said. "Even some of the salespeople were surprised. I was happy."

Next stop: Macy's department store. Gault zeroed in on a $128 sweater, but noticed it was missing a sash.

I was surprised you can bargain at Macy's, but Gault told me, "There are different ways to do it. Now this is one of them -- I found this sweater and I liked it and it didn't have the belt to go with it. And so [the saleswoman] gave me 10 percent off."

The Macy's saleswoman told us they had a standard policy: "10 percent off is when we have any damage or something is missing something like this."

And that leads to Haggling Tip #2: Look for imperfect items. You can usually get 10 percent to 20 percent off.

Still at Macy's, Gault haggled for a discount on a $31 T-shirt. She was hoping the salespeople behind the counter might have some private store coupons to offer her, but that didn't pan out. Upon further pressing, Gault learned about a different way to get a discount. The saleswoman asked Gault whether she was from out of town and Gault told her she lived in Los Angeles.

"I said, 'Is there anything you can think of that we can do to get the price down?' and she says, 'are you a visitor?' And I said, 'yes.' And she said, 'You can get 11 percent off. Go to the visitor center, come back with a card, we'll give you 11 percent off.' Now that was a first for me! Even I had never heard of a visitor discount."

Macy's visitor discount card offers customers 11 percent off almost everything in the store, good for five days provided you can prove with identification that you're from out of town.

"Haggling makes me feel good," Gault said. "It's like winning at Vegas."

Veteran haggler Rick Doble has his own Vegas analogy.

"Haggling is to some extent a crap shoot," he said. "But that's part of the fun of it!"

Doble, who lives in North Carolina, is editor of the newsletter Savvy-Discounts.com. He told us he saves about $9,000 a year by haggling.

He recently bought a close-out model phone for 25 percent off and an amplifier for 75 percent off (because the logo was upside down). About a week ago he went to Kmart and found a camera that was listed for $109. He brought that cost down to $50. He haggled over a Brooks Brothers shirt, and got it for $2.

When Doble shops, he hunts for close-outs, which are good bait for haggling. And that's Haggling Tip # 4: Don't think you can't haggle on already discounted items and get an even better deal.

And Doble doesn't stop there: Groceries, he says, are fair game. He asked a salesperson at the market about getting a break.

"What kind of deal if we bought, say, all the asparagus, and the avocados and the yogurt?" he asked.

"I'd give you 20 percent off if you bought all that," the saleswoman said. "We'd be glad to get rid of it actually."

And that's Haggling Tip #5: The more you buy, the more you should ask for a discount. That's what Gault did back in New York at a salon: 10 percent off for a manicure, pedicure and waxing. Yes, services are negotiable, too.

Haggling Tip # 6: Do your research: Compare prices before shopping. Gault used her own site, TeriToday.com, to check the lowest price on a digital Sony camera. Then she went to Best Buy.

She told the Best Buy manager, "I can buy it on the Internet for $238 for tax and no shipping. Can you give me any kind of discount off of this?"

The manager responded, "The best I can give it to you is $269.99." But he also agreed to a camera case for half price and 15 percent off a camera memory stick. She bought all three items, saving $25 in total.

I asked Gault, "How do you look at the rest of us? Fools paying retail and full price, right?" "No," she responded, saying that she just wanted to take me shopping, and show me how to do it.

So I agreed to it and Gault accompanied me on my maiden haggling voyage. I walked into a jewelry store somewhat in disguise and wearing a hidden camera. I was looking for some earrings for my daughter's 16th birthday and immediately fell hard for a pair of $385 tanzanite earrings.

I asked the saleswoman, "How much of a discount could I get on this? On $385?"

"$350, but I can't go any lower," she responded.

That was about a 9 percent discount. Gault thought I could do better, so we left. And that's Haggling Tip #7: If you're not happy with the offer, be willing to walk away. And sure enough, at the next jewelry store, I found another pair of tanzanite earrings. Yes, they were more expensive, but I got a better deal. Here's a snippet from the conversation I had with the store manager:

Bill: "How much of a discount can I get on that?" Manager: "Are you ready to buy now or are you still comparing?" Bill: "Well, I'm ready to buy in the next 20 minutes." Manager: "I'll give it to you for $500."Bill: "If I paid in cash?" Manager: "I could include the tax and I can do it for $450. That will be your last price."

So, in less than 10 minutes, I saved a bunch of money. I paid $450 for an item that would have been $675 with tax. Instead, the shopkeeper agreed to pick up the tax.

It was easier than I thought. I think I've been converted. Honestly: the FIRST price isn't necessarily the FINAL price.

Ann Varney contributed to this report.

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