Bargaining for Price

When you go to the Whole Foods, do you ask for 10% off on the arugula? Why not? I mean, if they don’t sell it, they’re just going to throw it away. Don’t you think they should make you a deal?

It’s a truism that Americans only bargain for the two biggest ticket items — houses and cars. Different cultures have different rules. I once met a car dealer who had a dealership in a neighborhood with a lot of recent immigrants. We try to sell to them at sticker price, he explained. A lot of them don’t know it’s negotiable. But in their home country, the price of arugula in the market might be.

Another, more recent, truism is that haggling is on the rise in the U.S. I’m sure that this is true for services, but how about consumer goods? I know all about e-bay and Priceline, but can you bring yourself to walk into an appliance store, or a clothing store, or a supermarket, and ask for a discount? What would happen if you asked for 15% off a vente latte at Starbucks? They’re hurting, you know. They could use the business. How about asking for a free extra shot?

Some people like haggling better than others. For my father, who grew up in a country with a haggling culture, it was a sport. He was famous (in my family, at least) for going down to Canal Street in NYC and spending hours seeing just how cheaply he could buy a fake Rolex. Last time I visited my mother, I found a whole drawer full of them in a dresser. They were haggling trophies.

What’s the point of this post? We think of authority as legal. It’s not, except at its most coercive margins. As most of us experience it, it’s cultural and economic.

Here’s a 15 year old NYT article about haggling for art at galleries. The not surprising observation is that more goes on than you think, especially when the economy is wobbly, but that you have to ask. You have to reject the authority of the price tag. At least back in 1993, a 20% discount was a piece of cake. Something to keep in mind when you are buying me a Lia Halloran photo for my birthday.

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2 Responses to Bargaining for Price

  1. lbsmom says:

    This reminds me of an article I read in Canada’s Globe & Mail when we lived in Newfoundland in the early 1990’s. I tried their search archives, but they only go back to January 2000.

    The article suggested a new concept to me which I continue to use with some success to this day: asking anyone who’s about to sell me anything one question–“Is that the best price you can give me?”

    It took a bit of nerve the first few times I tried it, but nobody’s reacted negatively or even in a surprised way. It’s worked for me on the usual—cars & real estate, but would you believe furniture in a big department store, clothes, with the travel agent & other services? Of course, it always works on mattresses & at estate & garage sales. Where I haven’t tried it is at the grocery store, restaurants, coffee shops or doctors’ offices. I wonder why those prices feel fixed to me? I know the doctors & insurance companies negotiate prices all the time.

  2. jeffaregularworkinglawyer says:

    Judy — You’ve just hit on one of the biggest problems in our health care system. Insurers bargain with doctors and hospitals for certain discounts off of their so-called standard rates. If you are part of the insured majority, those lower prices are what your insurance company pays (or, if like me, you have a high deductible plan, you pay yourself). But if you are part of the uninsured minority, you pay the higher price. Thus many poor people, who are most of the uninsured, pay more for the same medical care than the insured middle and upper classes.

    I was uninsured for one month when I switched firms. My kid got sick. (It wasn’t bad — if it had been, I could have bought a month of my old firm’s insurance retroactively thanks to COBRA.) I asked his doctor for the insured price. No dice. Well, actually, I didn’t ask the doctor. I asked the office biller. Maybe I should have asked the doctor himself.

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