IN MY COLLEGE DAYS, a roommate taught me something about bargaining. He was a clothes horse, a rarity among college students then and, for all I know, still today. When he was feeling down, his best medicine was to take a stroll down the Drag, as Guadalupe Street in front of the University of Texas is known, and buy a new shirt.
In those days, there were several small mom-and-pop haberdashers on the Drag, and shopping there usually meant dealing with the owners. My friend would pick out a shirt he liked and say to the proprietor something along the lines of, “This is a nice shirt but I can’t do $19.95 on my budget. But I can manage $15.” Often as not, he got his deal.
I guess I’d had a sheltered life before leaving for college—I’d never even thought to take this approach in a retail establishment. But seeing my friend pull it off made an impression on me. And why not? He was invariably polite and pleasant, no one’s feelings were hurt, and the worst they could say was no.
I’ve taken this approach pretty much ever since and have been pleasantly surprised to see this negotiation tactic work in a wide variety of everyday transactions.
We have no dental insurance. When we went shopping for a new dentist, I asked if he would give us a discount for cash. After all, it would save him the hassle of dealing with insurance. He agreed to a modest discount.
We’ve always had dogs, in recent years as many as four. Needless to say, we spend a lot of money on vet bills. I became aware that many of the medications our elderly dogs require are available from online pet pharmacies at much lower prices than our vet charges. He kindly agreed to either match the best online price or else just write the prescription so we can order online ourselves.
One thing you inevitably run into is: “I’d like to help you but our policy says….” If you can reach someone with authority, that policy can almost always be relaxed. For instance, not long ago, my wife and I were shopping for a large screen TV.
We drove a good distance to a Best Buy, relying on an ad promising a certain price. At the store, the employee claimed the advertised price didn’t apply for some reason and “policy” didn’t allow for any deviations. We held firm until they finally brought in the manager, who told us the same thing. Knowing that he almost certainly had the authority to do what we asked, we just hung in there until he did.
In some businesses, flexibility on prices is practically built into the system, as I’ve found with the cable company. I’ve written separately about this never-ending war. Suffice it to say that this ongoing negotiation is a pain, but completely necessary to keep our cable costs tolerable. In fact, I wonder about all those folks who don’t call up to complain. Likewise, I’ve always wanted to meet someone who paid full price for a suit at Jos. A. Bank, where there’s a new sale announced about every three days.
The internet has revolutionized bargain shopping, and a prime example is cars. We’ve followed the same plan with our last several car purchases, which I should mention were before the current supply crunch made bargains scarce.
After a test drive or two to identify the model we want, the rest is done from my laptop. I contact every dealer within 100 miles and simply ask for their best price, giving them the model, color schemes and option packages that we’ll accept. I never provide my phone number, only my email address. I usually hear from a handful of dealers who are truly aggressive on price, and eventually the best deal emerges.
I’m an introvert by nature, so all this bargaining isn’t something that comes naturally to me. But by now, it’s pretty much second nature and, I’ll admit, there’s some sport in it. Sometimes, I find myself spending an unreasonable amount of time to secure a modest discount. Yet there’s still some competitive satisfaction in getting it.
A final tip: When negotiating, it’s almost always best to be polite and respectful. If the person on the other end of the deal feels like he or she wants to help you, you’ll both feel better once the deal is done.
Andrew Forsythe retired in 2017 after almost four decades practicing criminal law in Austin, Texas, first as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. His wife Rosalinda and he, along with their dogs, live outside Austin, at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Their four kids are now grown, independent and successful. They’re also blessed with five beautiful grandkids. Andrew loves dogs, and enjoys collecting pocketknives and flashlights. Check out his earlier articles.
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Thanks for all the kind comments. As for car buying, I’ve been surprised at the large differences in best offers between dealers in the same general area on the same car. And since the car is under factory warranty, it’s no problem to buy the car in a neighboring city since you can still get it serviced close to home. It really pays to cast a wide net.
Great article Andrew. We bought a new car last fall in the midst of the shortage. Seeing empty dealer lots, or empty inventories online, was a new experience. When I tried the standard negotiating ploys they politely said they weren’t budging off of MSRP. I checked about 6 other dealers and got the same story. The only thing they offered was 0% financing. It was painful to pay full price, but my wife loves her new car.
I worked retail jobs in high school, as well as sold cars one summer while in college. Don’t be the type of person that makes a miserable job, even more miserable.
I try to haggle on big ticket items. There is an art to this and you need to be prepared to walk away. If they let you walk away, you are done with that dealer. If you return, they know you want their product badly and they will be tough in negotiations.
One thing my wife and I learned about car shopping is if she were part of the negotiations, we never got our best deal. We learned to shop enough to where I knew what was acceptable to her, and then I would negotiate with the dealer. I am guessing her body language gave her away. Sometimes salespeople would start focusing on her and ignore me. Anyway, we came up with a strategy that works for us.
A guy who used to work for me used a similar method of car shopping. He emailed several dealers asking for their best price on the model he wanted. Then he did a second round, telling them all the best price he got in the first round and asking them to beat it. I don’t recall if he went to round three, but he did get a better price in the second round. I admit I only went one round the last time I bought a car.
I agree with your points and I think it makes a lot of sense, but I’ve never enjoyed negotiating a price. I still find myself avoiding it if I can find a reasonable non-negotiated price. I really like your approach to buying a car since it essentially takes the face-to-face negotiating out of it. Maybe I’ll give that a try next time; thanks.
Agreed, and it eliminates the game they like to play, leaving you at the salesman’s desk while he checks with his manager. Back and forth…
I’m not one inclined to seek to negotiate prices, but I was pleased several times when doctors and a dentist offered a discount to pay cash for my portion of a bill. In one case a dentist applied a senior citizen discount without me asking for anything.
I had a similar experience with my dentist when he applied a cash discount to the bill without even mentioning it beforehand or me having to ask for it. It was a pleasant surprise that left me with a good feeling.