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The Man's Guide to Haggling

Forget "Black Friday." You should never pay full price in a store again.
The Man's Guide to Haggling

I recently bought a $100 shirt at J.Crew for roughly the same amount you’d spend on a case of watered-down beer.

How? Simple. I haggled.

You probably don’t know this, but we’re living in something of a golden age of haggling. Since the early 1980s, American brick-and-mortar retail spaces have managed to grow by 4% a year — despite the competition of online companies. But during the same period, the U.S. population has risen annually by less than 1%. So, without getting into the pesky details of economic trends, I’ll boil it down for you: Right now, there are too many shops and not enough shoppers.

Because most retailers have increasingly empowered their on-the-floor sales staffers to use personal judgment to offer “spot” deals and discounts
in the interest of luring customers back, you, my young consumer friend, have far more power over prices than you ever realized. Or as professional haggling coach Michael Sloopka puts it: “Everything is negotiable. Well, except not negotiating.”

Remember: There’s no shame in haggling. It’s not an act of desperation. The store employee will not be offended. When performed at its best, haggling is an art, the sign of a savvy businessman. At its worst it’s no more than playful banter. You fight for a better price for a car or house, so why not for a new phone or pair of running shoes?

So don’t be a sucker and join the zombies who swarm retail stores for discounts on Black Friday. With these smart plays, you can score those same deals for yourself every day.

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The first rule of haggling: Smile. It’s a negotiation, and the only surefire way to kill a deal is to piss off the other side. That button-down I scored for the price of some Miller Lites? I snared it by asking a sprightly J.Crew sales associate the most common question she gets all day long, “What’s the price for this?” Technically, I wasn’t even haggling yet, but I was friendly enough without being obsequious, and she noted that the signs on the rack were out of date. The shirt was on sale, but as an apology for the confusion, she shaved even more off the price. “It’s 70% off now.”

But before I even started bargain hunting that day, I’d already upped my chances of landing a discount. The best time to haggle is invariably when a store is tallying its figures and starting to sweat its sales goals — which is always at the end of the day, week, or month. If you’re shopping for a chair at a furniture retailer, for instance, hit the store near closing time on the last Saturday of January or July, when it needs to rotate out the previous season’s wares. In the case of J.Crew, where promos usually begin on Wednesdays and end on Sundays, I went on a Sunday evening, when they want to off-load more items than usual.

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When talking with a sales associate, avoid opening plays like “Can I get a better deal on that?”, a simplistic yes-or-no query that can be shot down with just one word. Instead, pose an open-ended question that puts the onus on him or her: “Is that the best you can do?” or “Under what circumstances could you improve on that price?”

It sounds simple, but you’d be amazed how few people do this. I recently floated a version of the question to a J.C. Penney staffer. She stepped away and returned with a flyer. “Come back on Monday,” she said, handing it to me. “We’re doing a promotion for that item, and it’ll be cheaper.”

If that doesn’t work, Ed Brodow, author of Negotiation Boot Camp, suggests going for “the flinch.” This is when an associate says there’s no deal available, and you respond with a single word, exclaimed with astonishment: “What?!”

“This is a subliminal thing because you’re not really saying anything,” Brodow explains. “You’re just implying that whatever the other person is asking as a price is ridiculous.” If this doesn’t produce a spot discount, it’s time to take your negotiation to the next level: the manager.

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With managers, Brodow advises the “sob story” routine: “I love this product, but it’s too expensive for me — with a discount, though, I’d love to buy it right now.” You’re telling the manager the sale is there for the taking if only he or she will adjust it slightly. Usually, he or she will.

Also, if you see an item you like, don’t forget to cross-check its price online. Gap clothing stores and their siblings, such as Old Navy and Banana Republic, regularly offer e-mail promo codes for online deals that might not jibe with full prices at the store. When I politely pointed out to a Banana Republic manager this summer that I could stand by the cash register and buy the same socks and jeans on my smartphone — or she could log the sales for her branch if she’d offer the same deal — she immediately gave me 20% off.      

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Meet the most effective haggle of all.

Nowadays, most retail sales associates live on a commission of about 4% to 10% of the total price of a purchase, so they want to sell you that laptop more than you need to buy it. Play off that anxiety by saying, “I want to become a regular customer here, and I’d love to make you my salesperson every time. What kind of discount can you offer me as an incentive for that loyalty?”

It works. For example, on a recent trip to Macy’s, I was offered a 25% discount on total purchases of $100 or more; I was spending only $80 on a few items, so I asked for leeway in exchange for my loyalty. The sales associate smiled back. “Okay, you look like a guy who’ll spend $100 next time, so I’ll give you the deal this time if you promise to come back.”   

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Once you’ve agreed on a fair discount, Brodow says to keep haggling for a “sweetener,” such as free delivery or a fabric upgrade. But in the end, he says it’s equally important to be willing to walk away and leave the store if you don’t land the deal you want at the price you want.

“As soon as you understand that, you’ve won,” says Brodow. “And if you don’t understand that, you’ve lost.” 

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