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The Everything Guide to Haggling

How to talk down the price of a mattress, cashmere sweater, squash blossom, and cup of coffee.


Illustration by Josh Cochran  

As plenty of local retailers will tell you, the downturn spawned a new breed of haggler: shoppers who—if not exactly on the level of the nineteenth-century New Yorkers who regularly wrangled over the cost of their weekly carton of eggs—nonetheless felt suddenly compelled to negotiate. The problem, for the retailers, wasn’t so much the ask but the abrupt, entitled manner in which many people made it. Bargaining, in fact, is a subtle skill; one that, it often seems, only the boldest possess. And now is an especially good time to learn it. With more and more brick-and-mortar stores forced to compete with the Amazons of the world and contend with “showrooming” (buyers using stores as a way to check out merchandise in person before ultimately purchasing it online somewhere else), you’d be surprised to find what you can get away with if you engage the seller in the right manner—not only at street fairs and mom-and-pop shops but at major retail chains too.

How to Haggle ...
“I’ve been shopping the 25th Street Antiques Garage for more than two decades now, and I’ve never paid more than $250 for anything—and that includes a chrome-and-glass three-ring coffee table, which would’ve set me back a couple of extra zeros at a store uptown. People make the mistake of being too brusque, trying to get the dealer to come down in price right away. You need to take the time to establish a connection with them. I’ll pick up, say, a toy from the forties and start talking about how it brings back a memory from my childhood. If you foster a mini-relationship with a dealer, they’re much more likely to concede when you ask for a lower price. Just as you feel more inclined to buy something from a shop clerk who’s charming and engaging, it works the other way around, too.” —Lloyd Williams, former fashion designer

A Cup of Coffee
“Wait until it’s just you and the employee: They don’t want to set a precedent by making an accommodation for you that other customers might expect too. Then, try asking nicely for $1 off your coffee. If the seller says no, ask for something else like, ‘Could you just throw in a shot of espresso?’ That’s called ‘enlarging the ask.’ ” —Carol Frohlinger, negotiation expert

A Mattress
“Once you find a mattress you like, do a quick search online for it while you’re in the store. Pitch the cheapest price you find to the salesperson. It’s really as easy as saying bluntly: ‘I can get this mattress elsewhere for x dollars, will you sell it to me for that?’ If you can’t comparison shop, I’d suggest offering about 50 percent less than the asking price, which will often get you to the minimum a retailer can sell it for. If they won’t budge, ask for extras like a free box spring or frame, a free set of sheets, free delivery, or free removal of your old mattress. Keep going until the salesperson can’t do anything else.” —Thorin Klosowski, writer

“I was paying about $200 for my two cable boxes, Internet, and one DVR. Customer service had repeatedly told me I was getting the cheapest option. Finally, exasperated, I called and told them that I just couldn’t afford what I was paying and would have to seriously consider alternative ways to get TV and Internet. That’s when they said, ‘How about a permanent credit of $50 a month?’”—Ryder Kessler, Columbia graduate student

New Clothing
“People who work on the sales floor have much more authority than you think; a lot of major retail chains have really empowered their employees beyond just folding sweaters. They now act as the store’s agent to get you to keep coming back. If you’re friendly and spend enough time with them, you can get these salespeople on your side. Once you’ve plopped everything down on the counter, and the salesperson is emotionally invested and already thinking of the commission and what they’re going to spend it on—that’s when you ask for a 10 or 15 percent discount.” —Farnoosh Torabi, host of “Financially Fit” on Yahoo!

A Car Service
“I always just hand the driver the amount of money I think it should be and get out of the car. It’s kind of like nonconfrontational haggling.” —Acasia Rose, styling assistant at Arrojo Studio

Vintage Clothing
“Vintage sellers tend to really care about their items and the stories behind them, so it helps when the buyer seems to genuinely care, too. You’re not going to get anywhere with me saying a dress is marked too high, but if you tell me how much you love it and ask nicely if there’s any wiggle room, I’ll always give some sort of discount. It also shows genuine interest if you can e-mail the seller ahead of time: Check out the websites of vendors who’ll be at upcoming flea markets and festivals. I just did this before an estate sale out in Staten Island where the seller had posted pictures on her website in advance: I ended up wrangling 30 percent off a faux-fur cropped jacket and gold pendants from the seventies.” —Laura Lanz-Frolio, owner of La Poubelle Vintage shopping truck

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