Some Thoughts on Haggling

A very kind reader recently sent me a link to a fascinating article at Salon.com entitled How I Learned to Haggle. The article outlines a woman’s experience with haggling, culminating with the author actually requesting a discount at a dollar store:

So before I can think too hard about it, I drive to my kids’ favorite place of business, the 99-cent store — where everything is now upward of $1.29 — to shop for an upcoming holiday. My extended family is coming to town for a big celebration, so I stock up on several items in bulk. Taking deep, relaxing breaths and focusing on the joy the plastic doodads I’m clutching will bring to my offspring and their cousins, I wait for the long line at the register to taper off. Then I unload the contents of my basket onto the raised counter, look up at the woman on the platform behind it and say, with a surprisingly steady voice, “I’m buying a lot. Would it be possible to get a discount?”

She looks at me, clearly taken aback and a little irritated. “I’d have to get the owner,” she says, as if that will end the conversation.

“OK,” I say.

She rings up three more customers while I wait, probably hoping I’ll give it up and go away, then reluctantly rouses herself and comes back with the owner, a kindly man to whom I repeat my question and fall silent.

He smiles at me. “Well,” he says, “you are buying a lot.”

He turns to the woman at the register. “Charge her 99 cents for these,” he says, pointing to eight items in my basket priced at $1.29. And these,” he says, waving at eight more priced at $1.49.

Then he looks at me apologetically, eyeing two large items selling for $1.99. “I can’t go any lower on those. Just the delivery charges have gotten so expensive.”
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“I understand,” I say.

Then he says, “OK, charge her $1.49.”

The woman at the register sourly does as she is told. I thank them both and pay in cash.

Unsurprisingly, with a story like that, the comments are pure gold, alternating between people sharing their own haggling tips and cheering on the writer to others disgusted at the thought of haggling at the dollar store.

My thoughts were pretty diverse on the issue, but I largely support what the woman did. Here are some of my thoughts on haggling – many of which I’m sure will generate some discussion.

Jem haggling, Marrakech.  Photo by Steve & Jemma CopleyA person’s desire and ability to haggle depends on their personality. Some people are born to haggle. Others are brought into it culturally. Others simply have neither the innate desire or the cultural pressure to do so – or only feel like it’s appropriate in some situations. Given that there are so many personal feelings about bargaining and there are vastly different cultural expectations about it in different parts of the world, it’s pretty much impossible to come to a single clear set of rules about what’s appropriate and what’s not when it comes to this art.

At the same time, it seems that in a world of haggling, introverts are directly financially penalized. A person who is naturally introverted or timid will simply not negotiate as strongly as an extroverted person who is willing to make a public scene to save a few dollars. Should the introvert be financially penalized for their nature? Would it be similarly appropriate to financially penalize people for other aspects of their nature – for the color of their skin, perhaps?

It’s because of this that I largely support standardized pricing within stores and competition among stores – everyone gets the same deal and the people who are rewarded are the people willing to put in the footwork and do comparison shopping, not the people who are willing to be pushy for it.

Businesses that expect haggling will price accordingly. Take yard sale pricing, for example. Whenever I run a yard sale, I usually price things on the high end of what I think is a reasonable yard sale price and I allow and encourage haggling. As the weekend goes on, I drop my prices over time.

This is true of many businesses, particularly “mom and pop” type businesses and also businesses from other cultures outside of the United States. They expect some degree of haggling from some percentage of customers and price accordingly. Quite often, I don’t mind not haggling at these events and paying their face price because I like supporting local businesses, but I have no qualms with haggling if a price seems particularly out of line.

Businesses that don’t expect haggling won’t tolerate it. On the other hand, in many stores, haggling simply does you no good. Large chain stores – particularly on less-expensive items – simply have no room at all to change prices. They’ll simply refuse – and you’ll simply have wasted your time. So, don’t haggle over the price of a tube of toothpaste at your local Target.

Taking those factors into account, I see no reason not to ask for a discount in many situations – but doing it where there’s no real chance of it working is annoying to those around you and potentially damaging to your reputation. If you’re standing in line at the local department store (that is obviously not a place with a haggling reputation) and make a big scene over trying to haggle over a few items, your only outcome will be to frustrate and annoy those around you. Even worse, some of those people might remember you – and your annoyance to them may come back to haunt you later.

My final point is perhaps the biggest one of all. If you feel the need to haggle for the item, why are you buying it at all? Take the example in the original story. Why is that person in the dollar store at all? Are “plastic doodads” from the dollar store really a worthwhile purchase?

While I can surely appreciate the sentiment of wanting to make a child happy, why not actually do something special with that time and money, like make a batch of their favorite kind of homemade ice cream together? Or even play a few simple games in the yard with them? Children are happy whenever you show them genuine love – it doesn’t have to take the form of a “plastic doodad” you bought for a buck at the dollar store.

This expands into a more general principle. Most of the items you might haggle for aren’t necessities at all. Unless you truly do want the item (and it passes the ten second rule), don’t even bother haggling over it or putting it into your cart. Just walk away and keep that cash in your pocket. Haggling to get a “deal” on something you don’t truly want and don’t need is just another way to watch your money slip through your fingers.

I look forward to your comments on haggling.

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