hen was the last time you went shopping and got a bargain? Not the kind of bargain you get when a store has a big sale, but a bargain that you make by negotiating with the seller? If you're like most consumers, your answer probably is "Never." If you bargain over price at all, maybe you do it in flea markets where, popular wisdom tells us, vendors "expect to bargain." You'd never dream of bargaining in a "real store."

Why is that? We're a nation of shoppers who rally to the cry, "Never pay full retail!" So why are we reluctant to actively bargain for the best price? And why do we think bargaining is appropriate only in some settings?

It may have something to do with the notion that it's impolite to talk about money, a bit of etiquette that makes it hard for us to broach the subject in any context. Also, we know that stores determine prices within a formal system that lacks flexibility. Manufacturers set prices for their goods; each industry has norms for markup; and stores, especially chains, have uniform pricing standards and high overhead costs.

Finally, bargaining often is thought to be the domain of the hard-nosed haggler, no place for the genteel shopper.

None of that, however, should keep you from bargaining for a lower price in the retail arena. With an attitude adjustment and a strategy, you can become adept at bargaining for everything from a refrigerator to a diamond ring.

Adopt this motto
as the linchpin
of your
attitude adjustment:
It doesn't hurt
to ask.

It's all in your attitude
Let's start with the taboo about talking about money. Parents tell their children this so they won't tell the neighbors about the family's finances. In that context, the taboo makes sense. Sometimes, though, refusing to talk plainly about money puts you at a disadvantage. Shopping is one of those times—because shopping is largely about money. If the seller is the only one who talks about money—by setting the price—you either can pay up or walk out. However, if you talk back, you have more options and one of them may be a better deal.

As for the structured pricing of the retail system—it has plenty of room for bargaining, especially because so few people do it. The manufacturer's suggested retail price is just that—a suggestion. Feel free to take it or make one of your own.

Retail markup—the difference between an item's cost to the retailer and its selling price—is where retailers make their profit. It varies by industry and ranges from a low of about 15% on large appliances to 100% on clothing, with most items falling between 30% and 60%. Specialty retailers know they can't get full markup on every item they stock. The smart ones prefer to keep things moving out the door, even at a deep discount. That's how they make room for new stock at full markup!

One last, and critical adjustment: You don't have to be hard-nosed to bargain. In bargaining, as in other exchanges, the aggressive approach rarely pays off. Instead, be assertive without being adversarial. While retailers don't expect to bargain, most are willing to talk reasonably about reducing a price and many actually do it. So adopt this motto as the linchpin of your attitude adjustment: It doesn't hurt to ask. The simple question, "What's the best price you can give me on this?" can get you pleasant results.

Come prepared
Effective bargaining isn't accidental. To succeed as a bargainer, you have to be prepared. Start with a strategy:

  • What to buy—Focus on big-ticket items like furniture, major appliances, electronic equipment, fine jewelry, and watches. An extra 10% or 20% off on one of these is worth bargaining for. Apparel is another good target because of its high markup and frequent turnover.

  • Where—The best place to bargain is a specialty store—either a regional or national chain selling a certain type of product, say electronics—or an independent merchant. Department and discount stores often have fixed prices that aren't negotiable. Visit several stores and, when you're ready to buy, give the salesperson an extra incentive to bargain by telling him or her that you're shopping the competition. If you want to buy at a particular store, find the lowest price available on your item and see if they will match it.

  • Who—Talk to the person with the authority to bargain, usually the department or store manager or the owner.

  • When—Make time work for you. On weekday mornings, salespeople usually have the time to spend making a real deal. At the end of the month, the pressure of sales quotas may increase a salesperson's willingness to bargain. Or shop off-season for better deals on items like air conditioners, lawn mowers, and snow tires.

  • How—Whenever possible, pay cash. Merchants love cash, plus it saves them credit card fees. On big purchases, cash often can get you an added discount.

Once you have a strategy, arm yourself with information.

  • Research the product you want in consumer magazines. Get objective information about the different brands and their features. Comparison shop for the best deal in several stores, as well as in mail-order catalogs and on-line shopping sites. Also check the manufacturers' Web sites for details about cost and rebates.

  • Know how long the item has been in stock. The longer it's been around, the more eager the store is to sell it. Items "age" faster in retail than they do in the real world. For example, apparel has as many as eight retail seasons, so clothes are "old" five weeks after they hit the racks. And the biggest difference between a recently discontinued model of a stove and its new model is your chance of getting a bargain on it.
It's also important to know what you want before you start bargaining. Be specific. Decide how much you want to pay and what features you want for that price. Tell the salesperson what you want without revealing your price. If the best offer doesn't meet or beat yours, you can show your cards by asking, "Is there any way we could do this for...?"

Finally, remember that the best deal isn't always defined by the lowest price, and price isn't just about product. Things like availability, delivery, installation and assembly, and service have value, too. The rock-bottom price on a bike is no bargain if it doesn't include a warranty.

To your new attitude and wealth of information, add experience. On the next big purchase you make, try out your bargaining skills. Don't be discouraged by poor results; try again next time. Practice and experience will give you confidence and the savings you want.

           Most retailers
           are willing to
           talk reasonably
           about reducing
           a price.

          The manufacturer's
          retail price
          is just that—
          a suggestion.

©1999 Credit Union National Association, Inc.