When Greg Schmidt was shopping for a bathroom vanity just before
Valentine’s Day, paying regular price never was an option. When he
found one he liked on clearance
– its price slashed more than 30 percent – Schmidt knew it was
time to find a manager of the Lowe’s store.
When Greg Schmidt was shopping for a bathroom vanity just before Valentine’s Day, paying regular price never was an option. When he found one he liked on clearance – its price slashed more than 30 percent – Schmidt knew it was time to find a manager of the Lowe’s store.
Marked prices are supposed to be final, or at least that’s what we’ve always been trained to think. Schmidt and a growing number of American consumers seem to think otherwise.
The 42-year-old Bethalto, Ill., man bought the vanity for $125, or $50 less than the marked-down price.
For Schmidt, haggling is the norm. He bargains on just about every big purchase, from cameras to car repairs. Usually, he sticks to sales, and then he wants at least an additional 10 percent knocked off. And, usually, he gets it.
“If you’re polite and you’re reasonable, most people are going to work with you,” Schmidt said. “Sometimes I don’t save as much as I’d like, but it just about always works to some degree.”
A survey of 1,000 shoppers last year by Consumer Reports indicated that, in the previous six months, more than two-thirds of Americans tried to bargain for a better deal and that – in most of those cases – the hagglers succeeded at getting retailers to lower prices.
The survey found that hagglers had success rates topping 75 percent when they tried to negotiate lower prices on hotels, cell phone plans, clothing, jewelry and appliances. Consumers who said they bargained for lower medical bills were successful about 58 percent of the time.
Hard-core hagglers tend to be younger shoppers, according to the Consumer Reports survey, which found that 37 percent of those under 35 said they “always or often asked for discounts.”
Other evidence of a shift toward bargaining comes from America’s Research Group, a Charleston, S.C.-based firm that researches consumer attitudes for companies such as Berkshire-Hathaway and General Electric.
For more than 20 years, ARG Chief Executive Britt Beemer has been asking Americans about haggling. During most of that time, only about a third of those surveyed said they’ve recently bargained for a lower price. About a year ago, that number shot up to about 72 percent – and it’s stayed that high in several follow-up polls, including one this month.
“It’s the highest I’ve ever seen it,” said Beemer, who doesn’t think the haggling trend will end when the economy recovers. “Consumers are getting deals, and they’re not going to give that up.”
The increase in haggling isn’t a recession fad as much as a “cultural shift,” says Shweta Oza , who studies bartering and negotiation as an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Business Administration.
“American consumers always thought they couldn’t ask for a price cut; they thought it was being cheap or weird,” Oza said. “But the economy has acted like a trigger – it’s telling them that you can ask retailers for a break and that you’ll usually get it.”
Americans are more comfortable asking for discounts, Oza believes, and they’re finding that haggling “is empowering, not demeaning.”
Sales clerks also seem more accustomed to bargaining, said Oza, who said a Macy’s worker didn’t hesitate to knock $40 off the price of a food processor Oza bought late last year.
Selin Malkoc researches consumer behavior at Washington University’s Olin School of Business. She’s skeptical that American shoppers are embracing haggling in any significant way, at least not like consumers in Malkoc’s native Turkey.
While bargaining is common in Turkey, it’s less so than it once was because of the influx of American retailers that won’t budge on price. Turkish consumers accept inflexible pricing at those stores because they have no other choice.
“Retailers’ policies determine whether (haggling) is acceptable, and it’s the same way here,” Malkoc said. “Whether we see a big increase in bargaining is going to depend on how companies respond.”
In other words, consumers are going to be a lot more likely to bargain if they believe a retailer is going to budge, or if they know – from friends, family or past experiences – that a store manager has caved before.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that big national retailers don’t like to promote hagglers’ successes.
A spokeswoman for Macy’s, where Oza got the deal on a food processor, said the department store has a firm no-haggling policy. A spokeswoman for Lowe’s, where Schmidt got an extra $50 off that vanity, said store managers shouldn’t haggle but they can adjust prices for one-of-a-kind, clearance items.
Dan Butler, the vice president of retail operations for the National Retail Federation, doesn’t think there has been a significant jump in haggling at national chain stores.
“I don’t doubt that many consumers think they’ve negotiated better deals, but we tend to remember the exceptions, not the rule,” Butler said.
Haggling is bad for business, Butler insists, because it exposes retailers to charges that they favor some customers over others. That, he said, could lead to lawsuits over discrimination or fines from that states that regulate truth-in-pricing laws.
Butler suspects that consumers who think they’ve successfully haggled were simply clued in to unadvertised sales or given a discount that, a day or two later, would be available to all customers.
Likewise, some St. Louis area retailers say that don’t wheel and deal with hagglers, but they sometimes will sell products for less than sticker price.
Stephen Weiss, president of the Creve Coeur Camera chain, said that while his customers seldom try to haggle, managers at his eight stores are authorized to sell below sticker price in rare cases–like when a customer finds the same product advertised for less at another St. Louis retailer.
Interviewed during a seller’s market just a few days before St. Valentine’s Day, Chuck Knoll laughed at the notion of customers haggling for flowers. Yet Knoll, a fifth-generation florist and one of the owners of Walter Knoll Florist, said that other times of the year his managers might be able to offer unadvertised discounts on high-end arrangements.
Beemer, the consumer-behavior researcher, said it’s natural for retailers to downplay or even deny that sales clerks and managers routinely reward haggling.
“It’s not the sort of thing that any company is going to admit to because they don’t want all the other customers to know about it,” said Beemer, who noted that he recently haggled a 20 percent discount at a department store on the same day one of its executives said such things don’t happen at the national chain.
If you’re going to give haggling a try, consider these tips from Consumer Reports:
– Be patient and friendly. Demanding a discount rarely works.
– Time your haggling when the store is less busy and clerks have more time to talk.
– Avoid haggling in front of other customers because clerks don’t want everyone to ask for a deal.
– Research prices. Bring Web print-outs and newspaper ads advertising lower prices elsewhere.
– Offer to pay cash, which saves stores credit-card transaction fees.
– Be prepared to walk if the store won’t work with you.