Let's Make a Deal

It's not just bazaar behavior - haggling has entered modern age, courtesy of the Internet

September 01, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Anne Nelson has no qualms about haggling with a salesman over the price of a car.

A ready check, some prior research and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude helped the first-grade teacher get 15 percent knocked off the price of a used convertible BMW she bought two months ago.

But ask for a break on a dress at the mall? Request a discount on prime rib at the grocery store? Or negotiate a better rate for a hotel room? The very thought is mortifying.

"That's just not really done over here," the Timonium resident says. "It's just not part of our culture to haggle."

Pshaw.

There's actually never been a better time to wrestle yourself a better deal on virtually anything from clothing to doctor bills.

Once thought of as a dying art that was largely confined to Old World bazaars and the stray yard sale in the United States, haggling is an ancient phenomenon that is spreading rapidly in modern day America, experts say.

Thanks to a weakened economy, a dip in consumer spending, rising costs and most of all, the smorgasbord of products, sellers and information available online, experts say that a growing number of consumers are starting to realize once again that a price tag is merely just a starting point for negotiations.

Today, almost 60 percent of consumers ask for a discount on purchases, compared with 40 percent 10 years ago, according to America's Research Group (ARG), a consumer behavior marketing firm.

Today's consumer mantra isn't Spend 'Til It Hurts, but rather: It Never Hurts to Ask.

"Haggling is definitely on the increase," says Britt Beemer, chairman of the Charleston, S.C.,-based ARG. "American consumers are not confrontational and haggling can be a confrontational experience. But people want better deals. As economic times have gotten more difficult, they're no longer afraid to ask for one.

"And retailers are much more likely to give us discounts today because every sale is so much more precious than before," Beemer says. "There's more competition and more places for people to spend money. All those things play a role. But the key is, you have to ask."

Experts say that spend-thrift sensibility shouldn't be limited to big ticket items such as homes and cars. The results can be surprising.

Rick Doble, who is editor and publisher of savvy- discounts.com, based in North Carolina, says he wrangles over everything: hotel rooms, electronics, mattresses and even food.

Doble has walked into grocery stores and charmed managers into marking down overly ripe bananas, almost expired beef and milk that will go bad in the next day or so. Doble has even worked his magic in fast-food restaurants.

"They sold me chicken for almost nothing because they were closing," Doble says. "They have a choice, would they rather throw this out or would they rather sell it for a lot less? First of all, you and I know they don't want to throw it out. They'd rather get something for it than nothing.

"Nine times out of 10, when you ask, you'll get a better deal," Doble says.

Nancy Twigg says she's adopted a similar attitude over the years.

In the past, the Tennessee homemaker has always played the role of good cop to her husband's bad in their tag-team performance at yard sales. Everyone knows the drill: She expresses interest in an item. He grouses about the wear and tear. She meekly asks for a better deal. He urges her to walk away. And then when the seller offers a bigger discount, she buys it. It's old hat for the Knoxville couple.

New territory

But Twigg says she recently started applying her aggressive bargaining skills to her 3-year-old daughter's medical bills.

"My daughter started going to a new doctor and I told them we didn't have traditional insurance and asked if they offered any discounts," says Twigg, who runs an online newsletter called countingthecost.com, which teaches people how to live a simple and frugal lifestyle. Twigg ended up paying $69 for the visit, a 22 percent discount in what she used to pay.

"I'm always so concerned about being polite and keeping everyone happy so I don't like asking," she says. "But we're on a pretty tight budget so that means I'm certainly going to have to ask if I want a discount."

A 2002 Harris Interactive poll found that a sizable minority of the public haggle with their health care providers. At the time, the poll found that 17 percent dicker with their pharmacists, 13 percent with their doctors, 12 percent with dentists and 10 percent with hospitals.

Harris predicted then that as out-of-pocket health care costs rise, the number of people who demand deals on everything from eye exams to surgical procedures will rise substantially.

Americans weren't always so reluctant to wheel and deal.

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