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No Harm in Asking

Andrew Forsythe

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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