July 31, 2008 -- I'm pretty solid with employment-related negotiating — salary, benefits, responsibilities, title and more — so my producers at "Good Morning America" decided to put my workplace skills to the retail test. Could I negotiate as effectively at the mall as in the office?
Most big retailers honor competitors' coupons and pricing for the same item. But what about just asking outright for a discount on new, full-price merchandise without having to open a credit card and without presenting coupons or ads?
First stop: The men's department at Macy's. I admit to being a bit nervous because I was empty-handed. Even though it was a mid-week morning, which is an ideal time since stores are pretty empty, I thought I'd be more convincing armed with lots of shopping bags.
Turns out, it didn't matter. After a few sales associates said they couldn't help me, I found a manager and asked directly if he'd offer me a discount on the full-price underwear I wanted to purchase. Yes, he said, and then extended a 20 percent discount even though I didn't have any kind of coupon.
When I shared that experience with a Macy's spokesperson, I received this statement: "Macy's, Inc., has a policy emphasizing integrity in pricing and promotions. We want our customers to understand that they can find good value in our stores. It is Macy's policy to not negotiate price with customers, a practice that we popularized in the late 1800's of offering merchandise at one price. However, as a customer service, managers are authorized to make accommodations for customers on a case-by-case basis under unusual circumstances such as damaged or incomplete merchandise."
The next department store I hit was JC Penney. I selected a bunch of full-price kids' clothing. When I asked the sales clerk if the items might go on sale soon and could I receive the savings now, she handed me the phone to speak with a manager. Approved: Another 20 percent savings!
A spokesperson for JC Penney told me, "We train all of our managers that if the customer's request is reasonable, take care of it." In this case, she said I was asking for a reasonable accommodation for a discount that either had already taken place or was likely to take place at some point in the future, so the manager had appropriate discretion to honor my request for a discount.
At the fashion chain Express, I headed straight for a friendly-looking manager to seek a discount on full-price fall merchandise. He said he'd grant the same deal, now expired, that had been previously offered to frequent shoppers: a whopping 30 percent off. Plus, I was given a $25 coupon to use in the store on a future visit.
An Express spokesperson said, "It's our policy to provide discounts on merchandise when posted in-store or advertised through our marketing materials."
I got some of the best deals at the mall kiosks, where vendors were eager to negotiate. For example, a sign promoted two pairs of sunglasses for $25, but I offered $20 and the clerk accepted.
Our final stop: Home Depot. I told the associate I wanted to buy some ceiling fans, but didn't want to pay top dollar. When I asked if the store ever offered discounts, he said, "It depends on how pushy you are." I wasn't pushy, just polite and persistent, which paid off. Nearly 30 minutes later, I was offered a 10 percent discount without having to open a credit card.
Will every store say yes to your request for a discount? Definitely not. No retailer says, "Sure, we welcome hagglers." Retail stores aren't flea markets and I respect that.
Sometimes I was rejected because the associate wasn't authorized to make adjustments or accommodations. In those cases, they pointed me to sale merchandise or in-store specials that were underway.
A few days later, I visited a different location of one of the chains that had initially said no. During my second attempt, a manager said yes. So sometimes it's the person, other times it might be the location.
Instead of pulling the demanding bully act, always be reasonable with your requests. For example, quietly but firmly indicate to a manager that you're looking to make a purchase if you're able to secure a discount. You might try:
Were there any specials in the last week or so that I missed that would entitle me to a discount today?
Have coupons been mailed to customers that I might not have received?
Is there any kind of promotion coming up that you might be able to extend to me now?
Before you ask for that discount, mentally prepare yourself: Are you ready to walk if the answer is no? If you're denied, are you willing to pay full price?
Tory Johnson is the Workplace Contributor on Good Morning America and the CEO of Women For Hire. Connect with her directly at www.womenforhire.com.