I have a friend who drives from Washington, D.C., to South Baltimore to buy his shoes.
When he gets to the shoe store, he walks inside, past the shoes on display, and goes to the back room. In the back room, my friend tells me, they have shoe bargains that would make you gasp.
My friend could buy his shoes anywhere (he's a lawyer and, therefore, filthy rich), but he gladly drives an hour for a bargain.
After much wheedling on my part, my friend gave me the name and address of the shoe store. He also told me it would do me no good to go there.
"You're going to go there and ask to see the shoes in the back room, right?" he asked.
Right, I said.
"Forget it," he said. "If you have to ask to see the shoes in the back room, they won't show you the shoes in the back room."
I am sure my friend is right.
A few days ago, I saw a story on TV offering helpful hints on how to survive the current recession. The media is full of stories like these and more are on the way.
This story was on the CBS network news and the reporter was standing in front of a big department store and saying: "This year, with times so tough for retailers, you can bargain on anything."
He said you could go into any store, even the big ones, and bargain because store owners are desperate for customers.
I can see me doing this. I can see me walking into Hecht's.
Hmmm, nice pair of jockey shorts, I will say to the salesman. Puce is certainly my color. So how much do you want for them?
"Five dollars," the salesman will say. "It's marked right there on the tag."
But how much of a discount will you give me because you are desperate and will bargain on anything? I will say.
"It's $5," he will say. "It's on the tag. All the prices are on the tags."
I want a discount! I will shout. I want to see the jockey shorts in the back room!
"Security," the salesman will say calmly into a microphone. "Customer in Aisle Six needs a good working over."
OK, so maybe on big-ticket items like a TV set or a washing machine, you really can bargain these days. If you know how to bargain. Which I don't.
My father knew how. My father could bargain on a car until he had the salesman in tears. And then, when the deal was struck, when everything was wrapped up, when all the paperwork done, my fatherwould say: "And you're throwing in floor mats, right?"
Never in my life have I gotten a salesman to throw in floor mats. I ask for floor mats and the salesman tells me they are $50 and I better hurry because tomorrow they are going to $55. And so I buy them and tell myself I have saved $5.
"Your trouble," my friend, the back room shoe expert, told me, "is that you want it too much. You can only get something at a good price if you're willing to walk away from the deal."
Let me get this straight, I said. If I don't want it, I can probably get it for a good price. But if I do want it, I should forget it?
"Exactly," he said.
So real bargains, I said, are things you don't really want in the first place.
"That's right," he said, "But you can get them at a great price."
I want to do my part to help you through these tough times. So I am passing along to you one of the world's great bargaining tricks that my friend taught me. It is called the Trick of the Two Pockets.
You go into a store, my friend explained, and you look at the price tag on the item you want. Then, without being observed, you put a much lower amount in your right pocket and hide the rest of your money in your left pocket.
After a salesman has approached and made his pitch, you turn out your right pocket and tell him this is all you have and, therefore, all you can pay.
"This trick is so foolproof," my friend says, "that the salesman will not only give it to you at that price, but sometimes he will give you carfare home."
I tried this trick once when I was in Hong Kong, a place where everyone bargains on everything.
I went into a sporting goods store and eyed a pair of running shoes. They were marked at $33. I decided if I could get them for $20, I could hold my head up and brag about this for the rest of my life.
So I quietly put $20 in my right pocket and hid the rest of my money in my left pocket.
A salesman came over and told me these were fantastic shoes, already marked down and I couldn't go wrong at that price.
I turned out my right pocket, revealing the crumpled 20. "This is all I have," I said.
"So what can I do?"
"Well, for starters," the salesman said, "you can check your other pocket."
For some of us, the back room is always closed.