Sunday, June 8, 2014

Haggling in America: 4 Things I Never Thought were Negotiable + Haggling Tips

For some reason Americans don't haggle or negotiate over price--you either pay the listed price or you don't buy it. Except at maybe garage sales or car delearships, but even there we hate it. The recently released Edmonds Survey of 1002 car buyers shows this:

"One in five Americans (21%) would rather say sayonara to sex for a month than haggle over the price of a car; 44 percent would give up Facebook for one month and 29 percent would turn over their Smartphone for a weekend if it meant avoiding the haggle" 

Somehow haggling has gotten a bad rap in American culture: it feels slimy, dishonest, price-gougey--just sell me the car for a fair price rather than marking it up $4k and making the sale into this time-consuming game of counter-offers. We get emotional about it. When I offer half for whatever the sticker price says at a garage sale (my standard rule), people get insulted:

"$4 is a VERY FAIR price for this chair, and you want me to give it to you for $2!? This was $199 when I bought it!"

Despite all this cultural disdain, I've discovered you can negotiate for a surprising amount of things in America, you can save a bunch of a money, and it's not hard (but maybe a little bit unsettling at first).

Here are a few of my tales about how I discovered this, followed by some tips. Note: I'm not claiming to be some master negotiator, but I think just by making the smallest effort you can reap huge savings.

Jiffy Lube or Any Other Oil Change Establishment

A few years ago, I went to a Jiffy Lube hoping to get a fast oil change before leaving on a long trip, and they wanted $50!! I just sat there in shock, $50 for a simple oil change? I've paid less than $20 before, does this oil make my car fly?

And this is where I learned my best negotiating tactic by accident. The employee stands there for a few seconds seeing that I'm not likely to buy any $50 oil change, and says he can do it for $20 for just a basic change. I wasn't trying to negotiate, I was just sitting there trying to decide if it was worth it for me to pay $50 or try to find another place open early on a Sunday, and get a late start on our trip. 

tip #1: Silence and staring is amazingly effective

So I learned two things: oil change prices are not written in stone and can be negotiated, and just sitting there and staring is all it takes sometimes. 

Glowly Sword Thing at Medieval Times 

While I was pretty drunk at a Medieval Times, a stadium vendor / hawker / teenager approached our row selling light-up LED swords that could even CHANGE COLORS. Mesmerized by the blinking lights, I called the kid over, and asked how much they were. $5! Too much! I'm not sure why, but I said I would buy one, but only for $4. I thought for sure he would say he couldn't do it, but instead, he said he'd go ask his manager. Amazingly, he came back with an OK and I got my blinky sword for $4! 

Does this mean you can possibly buy $10 beers for $5 at any stadium or event? I don't know, but it's on my list to try.

tip #2: Just try!

Macy's Furniture

Whenever possible, I buy everything I can off Craigslist: cars, computers, furniture--basically everything expensive. But in the interest of a more harmonious home free of couches with latent insect infestations, I was compelled to purchase brand-name, retail furniture from Macy's.

The sales lady was very nice and we found a couch we loved, but we were just starting our search, and said we wanted to look around at some other places before buying anything. And that it was a lot of money. Looking back, that was our first volley in negotiations. She hands us a card, writes her cell number on the back, says she works on commission and will drive in on a day off to make the sale if that's what it takes. And then writes 10 on the back, saying she will give us an additional 10% off whatever sale price we get on the sticker.

tip #3: Never buy immediately

Wow, so the salesperson can change the price listed on furniture from a big-chain store! For whatever reason, I always assumed that prices at big-name chains like macy's and Best Buy, etc., were fixed in stone, but here I learned otherwise!

We go back to the store later--she is a VERY good sales person--and gets us interested in a table as well. There's a pretty steep $200 delivery fee, so I ask if she can help us out with that if we get two things, and she looks like she's solving some difficult math or ethical problem in her head, and then says she'll talk to her associate, but she thinks she can do it. Doesn't hurt to ask!

Did I mention she was an amazing sales person? We were about to buy the cheapest set of table and chairs they had, and 1 minute later we're suddenly interested in an upgrade on the chairs. And the "worry-no-more" protection warranty. We ended up buying EVERYTHING, and that 10% off promise she made somehow didn't apply to part of the order--we were in a rush to finish before the store closed.

tip #4: Never be in a rush

But we did get the free delivery (or so we thought) and some amount of discount, but later when I was looking over the numbers, that chair upgrade costs us a ton more than we thought. So before the delivery, I went back and said I wasn't sure about the chairs. This was actually quite a long conversation of her telling me how ugly the original chairs were, and me staring off and looking concerned about the price. I honestly didn't think I was going to get anywhere on the chairs, but at some point the price of the chairs dropped in HALF. She pulled up the order on her computer, refunded the original chairs, made a new order typing in half price for each chair.

There were a lot of other shenanigans that came up during this order, including that delivery fee not turning out to be quite free, and being pressured to buy quickly to get a credit card signup deal, but the overall moral of the story is: the salesperson can type in whatever price they want. I don't know if she was breaking rules or what, and at one point I thought she told someone over the phone she didn't want to bother her manager, but don't believe any sales person when they say they can't give you a better price.

tip #5: We can't go any lower, can't give free delivery, etc. ... really means we prefer not to.

Overall, I think I was no match for the negotiating prowess of the macy's salesperson, but I still think I did better than if I hadn't tried at all. If you miss some big sale at Macy's, tell the salesperson you're willing to buy at that specific sales price and see what happens.

Tree Service or any other Home Contractor

A tree guy came to our house telling us he was going to be at a neighbor's house, and that we had a few suspect looking trees. We walk around and discuss the options, and the price comes in $2800. WOW! Who knew trees cost so much to get rid of! I say we'll need to get some 2nd opinions because that's a ton of money (honestly not trying to negotiate), and bam, the price drops to $2500. He says it's really hard to cut down trees, and I say again that we need to think about it, and bam, price dropped to $2300. $500 in less than 2 minutes.

#tip 6: Don't deny the seller the opportunity to give you a discount by buying too fast

Haggling Fail: Buying a Used Piano on Craigslist

For a very long time, I wanted a very specific digital piano (Roland HP503) and it finally showed up on craigslist for a fantastic price. Barely used, mint condition, and an amazing 50% cheaper ($1400) than retail ($2800ish new). As a general rule, I always offer less than the listing. No matter what. But this time it backfired.

I offered $100 less than the asking price, and he said yes (it had been up there for 3+ weeks), but then the next day I didn't hear back to get his address to pick it up. He finally responds (after I rent a van) that someone else made an offer of $2k.

A week later I follow up and the other offer fell through. He had told some people about the deal, and they all thought it was an amazing deal (but didn't pony up the money!). But he was no longer willing to sell even at the original price. He sounded insulted at my offer. I continued to send emails that took days to get responses to, and finally ended up buying it for $1700, $300 more than the original listing.

I don't know if it was seller's remorse or feeling that I was unjustly getting away with too good a deal, but I might have gotten a better price had I just paid list immediately and not tried to haggle. I'm including this story just to add a little counter weight to my idea that anything and everything can be negotiated for. Sometimes people get a little testy and the purchase will take a bit longer (weeks in this case).

Conclusions and Haggling Basic Steps

I don't have any black-belt negotiating skills, but I think a lot can be gained by just trying and following these simple steps:
  1. Express interest
  2. Say the price is too high
  3. Wait
Or a slight alternative:
  1. Express interest
  2. Offer lower price
  3. Wait
I don't have any fancy Tommy Boy style negotiating tactics in there...

"I can get a good look at a T-bone by sticking my head up a bull's ass, but I'd rather take a butcher's word for it."

but just doing the above--which is basically just asking--has saved me tons of money. You never know if something is negotiable until you try. Even in America.

Sure it can backfire if you try to get a discount on someone's dead mother's family heirloom.  It might also end up costing you some time and a few more trips to the store. But most of the time you'll never make a better hourly rate than you will spending a few minutes of negotiating.


  1. I used to work at a custom framing shop (a large chain retailer) and I had quite a bit of control over prices (MUCH more than the average cashier). I didn't get paid on commission, so I didn't have much interest in raising the prices, but almost everyone assumed that the first price I quoted was the final price.

  2. Some digital pianos have 535 instruments! Others may solely have ten. Generally, you're buying the digital piano for its actual piano therefore so these different instruments might not matter an excessive amount of.

  3. I simply despise the expectation we must haggle to arrange a fair price.


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