A guide to retail bargaining

How to Deal

by Jennifer Wortman


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In high school, my Spanish teacher taught us about bargaining. She taught us that though we don't do it here, in other cultures, people regularly haggle for goods at the market. Years later, as a sales associate at a small retail store, I learned otherwise. There is a time and place for bargaining here in the U.S.A.

Not all retail stores permit bargaining. The big chains, in particular, tend towards micromanagement, with set-in-stone policies and standardized prices. However, when it comes to bargaining, it never hurts to try. Your chances of success, though, will increase at small, locally-owned businesses. Often the owner works right in the store, and if not, the sales staff may have more flexibility than those working for large companies. Furthermore, each individual sale means more at small businesses, which lack the safety nets of the bigwigs.

What you bargain for is as important as where you bargain. Retailers will be more open to cutting costs on certain items:

  1. Damaged Goods. Merchants often welcome the opportunity to get defective items off their hands. Damaged merchandise mars the look and potentially compromises the integrity of a store. However, unless an item is completely ruined, most retailers hesitate to throw away something in which they've invested money. If an item's scratched, chipped, stained, or superficially flawed in some way that can be easily concealed or fixed, make an offer. If an item has bigger problems, make sure you can still use it, or at least know how to repair it at no or low cost. Otherwise, any deal, however big, will be worthless.

  2. Overstocked Items. If merchants have many of a certain item, they may want to reduce their inventory. Sometimes, though, retailers stock up on hot sellers simply to meet demand. Keep an eye on well-stocked items over time. If you notice no change in their numbers, perhaps the store has bought too much of a low-demand product, and might tolerate a price reduction to get it out the door.

  3. Slow-to-sell Items. An item doesn't need to be overstocked for a merchant to want to move it. Any merchandise that's been sitting around awhile may qualify for bargaining. In particular, when large, expensive items gather dust, storekeepers get nervous. They've invested substantial money in a piece, and will sometimes prefer breaking even to the prospect of a big loss.

  4. Bulk Purchases. If you plan to buy a lot of a certain item, or simply are buying a large quantity of various items, ask the merchant to cut you a deal. Remember, "bulk" is relative. While it might take purchasing hundreds of a small, inexpensive item to turn your salesperson's head, picking up a couple large, high-end items could be enough to merit a discount.

No matter what you haggle over, or where you do it, attitude counts. A polite, but assertive demeanor achieves more than acting brash and aggressive. Salespeople want to work with, not against, customers, and the easier you make it for them to do so, the better your chances of saving big bucks. You might even form a long-term relationship where everyone profits.

For those who lack an aggressive, or even an assertive, bone in their bodies, and find the prospect of asking merchants for special discounts horrifying, keep in mind the cardinal rule of bargaining: it never hurts to ask. Most retailers have seen their share of customers wanting deals; it's a part of their job, and the worst they can do say is no. Over time, bargaining gets easier. Relax, have fun, and watch the savings add up!

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