Haggling Through the Apocalypse

In today's pushcart economy, every price is negotiable—from cars and electronics to cashmere sweaters and fine jewelry. Lee Eisenberg bargains his way up Michigan Avenue.

One of the thousands of market-research firms that routinely survey consumer behavior, America’s Research Group, recently issued fresh findings on the mental state of the US buyer. The survey found that the number of us who are buying things not on sale is “almost nil.” And that there are three reasons we give for postponing all but the most basic purchases: 1) ain’t in the mood; 2) worried about job security; 3) there are plenty of things we want but they cost more than we wish to spend right now. The research firm’s CEO, C. Britt Beemer (not many of those being sold either), offered an earnest and entirely unnecessary observation that “consumers are in deep hibernation” and there’s “no sign that they will wake up this spring or that the retail outlook will pick up any time soon."

What else is new? Well, there was one finding that did grab my attention: Americans are haggling more. The survey says that over the past holiday buying season, some 72 percent of respondents admitted to having haggled—or as my forebears put it, “hondled”—with various retailers, compared to just 56 percent who haggled the year before. And about 80 percent of those who screwed up the courage, or dialed up the chutzpah, to haggle said that they came away with a better deal than if they hadn’t, compared to just a 50 percent hit rate the year before.

In fully developed haggling societies, hagglers approach everyday bargaining sessions knowing that both sides are honor-bound to make concessions. Our goal is to win, even if it means breaking a retailer’s balls.

Now, it’s reasonable to suppose that a hefty statistical slab of these self-reported haggles were the usual jousts with used-car salesmen and what’s-to-lose jawboning over asking prices of a Birkin-esque bags on Canal Street. But I’m also quite sure that in recent months intrepid hagglers have dared to go to where few hondlers had gone before: designer boutiques, the glitziest jewelry stores, and other places where indulgences don’t come cheap.

I know this because I just talked to an associate at Neiman Marcus who told me that while her customers weren’t haggling over price, they were haggling like crazy over percentage discounts. No real difference, just more discreet. Not content with 40 percent markdowns, they’re demanding a few hundred more basis points on top of that. I also know that haggling over indulgences is on the upswing because I’ve done it myself. A couple of weeks before Christmas—Chicago being Chicago—I decided I needed a cozy watch cap to keep my head from turning into a fast-frozen melon. What I had in mind was not one of those beefy acrylic watch caps adorned with a Bears or FBI logo. What I wanted was as a soft-as-a-caress version of same: black, finely spun, cat-burglarish, a watch cap worthy of Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. Having spent the past several years researching a book on the current state of consumer choices, I figured that the best place to find that sine qua non watch cap was at the stately Ralph Lauren flagship store down on Michigan Avenue, otherwise known as the Magnificent Mile. And sure enough, on one frigid day I wandered in and there it was: a silky smooth watch cap with a Purple Label sewn in, a label that read “Made in Italy” and assured me that the cap was made of “100 percent Cashmere/Cachemire.” Aha, bene, bene, I thought, and then checked the pricetag: $170, if I recall. That I don’t recall precisely is because I instantly turned to the salesman, held up the cap between thumb and forefinger (it weighed far less than the tiniest known humming bird), and blurted out a slightly more winsome version of, “Are you fucking kidding? For this?” Then, flashing as disarming a smile as I could muster with frozen facial muscles, added half-jokingly, “Say, do you ever negotiate?”

The salesman chortled and shook his head. But then he promptly informed me that this was—ta-da!— my “lucky day” because today there was “a friends-and-family” sale going on (no signage to that effect, of course) and, hey, since I seemed like a nice enough guy who could imaginably be his friend if not a distant cousin, he’d knock off 40 percent.

Though my haggle paid off that day—still a ridiculous price but emotionally satisfying—it was not an especially artful encounter; in fact, it was pathetic compared to how hondling is conducted round-the-clock in most other parts of the world. Americans, myself included, are arguably the least comfortable and most heavy handed hagglers on the planet. There are all kinds of reasons for this.

In fully developed haggling societies, hagglers approach everyday bargaining sessions knowing that both sides are honor-bound to make concessions. Our goal is to win, even if it means breaking a retailer’s balls.

Seasoned hagglers know that it’s a dance, a social ritual best conducted leisurely in a sun-drenched open market or over a glass of sickening sweet tea. There, hagglers on both sides of the encounter parry and thrust, using a full arsenal of shrugs, gibes, expressions of mock outrage, bursts of humor, gentle put-downs. In contrast, we’re overly aggressive and impatient, intent on scoring a quick, one-round knockout. We go at it with red faces, clenched fists and sputtering take-it-or-leave-its.

But now that we are again living in a pushcart economy, we ought to get our act together. A big part of successful haggling—upmarket American-style—is knowing not just how but when a positional bargaining stance. On a macro level, today’s dreadful economy is a great time generally to haggle for major appliances, cars, jewelry, and consumer electronics. For evidence, just go online and check out consumer blogs dedicated to those categories.But if your quarry is shoes, dresses, suits, any sort of expensive apparel, the time is not quite yet. The reason is that apparel stores have just set out their spring merchandise and retailers are, even in the teeth of a deep recession and against all odds, inveterate and irrational optimists, at least for these first few weeks of the new season. This I know because yesterday my wife accepted my commission to take a hondling expedition up and down Michigan Avenue and just turned over her notes:

Barneys. Tried on $1,545 Jil Sander jacket (size 38, just in case!). Deliberated long enough to seem convincing, then sprang the question. "Any flexibility on the price." No hesitation. "Wish there was," salesperson said.

Prada. Tried on white $450 sandals. Popped “flexibility” question. “No” on new full-price items, but “yes” on reduced stuff already marked down 70 percent. Salesgirl blushed furiously when pushed further. Don't know if she was embarrassed for me or herself.

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Furla. Admired a $750 bag. No go on discount, but told to come back around Easter.

Escada. Pranced around prominently holding hideous orange bag, $1,290. Got a “no” to a discount, told they’d just had a f &f sale. Saleswoman asked for my name and number, said she would keep me informed. Leaving, overheard hush-hush conversation between saleswoman and manager about possible price break. Have the feeling I’ll be hearing from them.

Ralph Lauren. Donned very unflattering blue blazer. Made in Italy, $1,998. Sweet little prepster declined my request for a deal. Said my husband had been afforded a f&f discount on a watch cap. She said they do f&f’s “now and then” but never knows exactly when they will happen. Took my name and number.

Neiman Marcus. Salesperson nearly jumped out of her skin to help me in fine jewelry dept. Said I was in the market for graduation gift for daughter; she believed me. Narrowed things down to $16,500 necklace by Temple St. Clair. After careful glance at my own jewelry, then complimenting me on my overall beauty, she said she could negotiate a discount with manufacturer. 10 percent, likely more. Guess is, she was starting low to get ball rolling.

Ferragamo. Last stop. Discussed merits of fetching $1,900 white leather tote (folds flat so you can put it on the bottom of your suitcase!). Eyeing me (then offering encouragement) was glam customer in full-length lynx-paw coat enjoying refreshments proffered by a salesman kneeling before her—no kidding. When it came time to pop the question, I chickened out. Even I have my limits.

Bottom line: Easter falls on April 12 this year. Until then, practice deep breathing, work on your patience, swallow any pride, and above all, save the date.

Lee Eisenberg, who wrote the bestselling The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life, is the author of a new book about consumer behavior to be published this fall: Shoptimism: A Journey Through the Brave Heart and Restless Mind of the American Consumer . He is blogging on the subject at ShoptimismBook.com.