High-tech haggle

Armed with online price comparisons, bargain hunters try their hand at dickering

November 25, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Haggling - it's not just for flea markets anymore.

"My wife thinks I am nuts, as I view retail prices as list [prices] that are quite negotiable," says Richard Hughen, vice president for sales and marketing at CSA Medical Inc., a Baltimore-based medical technology company. "Many times they, in fact, are."

With the weak economy persuading more people to shop hard for bargains, many seem to be resorting to good old-fashioned haggling. Not only is technology making it easier, thanks to Web sites that make comparison shopping a breeze, but some stores are even taking tiny steps to encourage it.

And it's the big-ticket technology toys that seem to be targeted most often. While a random sampling of local consumers saw a willingness to try to bargain down prices on a host of objects, everything from computers to refrigerators, most seem to aim their haggling at high-tech items. And they're finding some surprising results.

"I've been to plenty of third-world countries; I know how haggling works there," says Yair Flicker, co-founder of Baltimore-based SmartLogic Solutions, a software and consulting firm. "It seems to be this big secret that people don't know about, that you can actually go to these big-name stores and work out a price."

Flicker, who was in the market for a pair of big-screen plasma TVs, went to a local Best Buy ready to barter. He ended up getting $250 knocked off the $3,700 price tag. Not a lot, percentage-wise, but $250 is $250.

"The original guy wasn't that helpful," he says. "But if the first guy can't help you, then speak to the manager. Obviously, [managers are] going to have more leeway over what they can do with the price."

It helps to do your homework beforehand. Sometimes, it's enough just to ask. But other times, the clincher is being able to say that you saw the same or a similar item elsewhere for a lesser price. Few things help persuade a retailer to negotiate faster than the fear of losing a sale.

"They'll try to find you something that will save you money if they see you walking," says Chicago-based Realtor Dean Moss, who last month posted an exhortation on blogchicagohomes.com titled "Dicker, Dicker, Dicker! Do you?"

"It's just a matter of simply asking," says Moss, who said he recently saved about 10 percent on a TV purchase simply by broaching the subject of a discount. "Most people are just embarrassed to do so; they feel it makes them look poor. But in recent months, people are doing it a little bit more. I think people are becoming a little more cost-conscious."

Some stores have even taken steps to help. Although it's unlikely any big-box retail store would openly invite people to come in and haggle (a practice normally reserved, at least in this country, for car and home purchases), many offer enticements for the comparison shopper.

Both Sears and Best Buy, for instance, offer best-price guarantees, promising to match any retail price and even top it by 10 percent. At a recent visit to the Sears at Marley Station mall, a sales clerk in electronics offered to check competitors' prices online.

Charles Ostrander, a manager at the White Marsh Best Buy, says he hasn't noticed an increasing number of customers looking to haggle. But when customers do come in looking for a bargain, or insisting they only have $1,000 to pay for that $1,200 home entertainment system, he and his sales staff are eager to investigate other options - maybe steer them toward a cheaper model, or find a floor model or returned item they can offer for less. And there's still that price guarantee to fall back on.

"We're going to find them something that suits their needs," he promises.

Shoppers determined to get the best price possible have one invaluable tool at their disposal: the Internet. Almost all retail stores maintain Web sites with prices listed, making comparison shopping much easier than when you had to drive from store to store or spend hours on the phone.

"The Internet has become really important as a tool for consumers," says Jim Trela, chair of the sociology department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who studies Internet behavior.

"By the time a consumer shows up at a store, they have the information, they know what they should pay for an item. ... It's the fairly innocent or naive consumer that fails to consult the Internet," Trela says.

Frank C. Fillmore Jr., founder of Towson-based database consultants The Fillmore Group, used pricegrabber.com to find a flat-panel TV for $200 less than any of the local stores could offer, with free shipping included.

Steven Kruskamp, a marketing manager for 1st Mariner Bank, has found a welcome tool in beatmyprice.com. The site asks for the make, model number and price of an item, as well as the Web page on which it was found, then searches to see if it can be found cheaper somewhere else.

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