Haggling: A Tool For Difficult Times

The bad economy means more people may be willing to haggle over the cost of items. And more businesses may be willing to enter into bargaining as well. Nishat Kurwa, a master bargainer herself, tests out some of her well-practiced routines and takes a novice haggler along for a lesson.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. President Obama unveiled his 10-year budget plan today. It includes higher taxes for families earning more than $250,000, and for families earning less than $150,000, they'd get a tax break. The government hopes people would then feel emboldened to go out and spend some of their extra cash. Well, if you're like me, you're not feeling the urge to go on a wild shopping spree much these days. But reporter Nishat Kurwa in San Francisco has found a way to hit the stores without taking a big financial hit. It does involve a little negotiating.

NISHAT KURWA: Long before the recession became this cloud putting a damper on our spending, I was an avid haggler. Please believe, getting discounts is not dumb luck; it's a talent. Talking to my brother recently, I realized Hussein is a great example of a should-be bargainer.

What's your credit card debt like these days?

Mr. HUSSEIN KURWA: I'd rather not say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KURWA: The guy needs to be doing some serious belt-tightening.

Mr. KURWA: Coming from working in retail as my first job, you know, we all hated people that tried to just come in there and get deals because they thought they were entitled to deals when the reality is, like, you know, you can either pay or you can go somewhere else. It's...

KURWA: Well, isn't that the point? There's so much competition out there that you've got to please the customer.

Brian Nickerson, director of shopping at Internet Brands, says in a bad economy, it seems everything is negotiable.

Mr. BRIAN NICKERSON (Director, Shopping, Internet Brands): It never hurts to ask, and you can be amazed definitely at the deals you can find. I think retailers are concerned about both their top-line revenue and the margins that they can achieve on that revenue.

KURWA: Nickerson says these days, retailers are so eager to guarantee a sale, they're more willing to negotiate. My brother Hussein is uncomfortable with my suggestion that getting a good bargain begins with a bit of pop psychology.

You walk in; the person seems like they're in a bad mood; you have to be a little empathetic. If they're in, like, a funny mood, you maybe joke around with them a little bit; you kind of build a rapport. And then when you've gotten to be their NBF, their new best friend, then you go for the jugular.

Mr. KURWA: Yeah, I don't know, it still seems a little bit like you're kind of playing them when they're trying to do their job. So, I guess if morally you're OK with it, then you can do it.

KURWA: Oh, boy. This one's going to be a challenge. So, key for Hussein here? Adopt the whole there's-no-such-thing-as-a-stupid-question approach. Engage the target.

Mr. KURWA: Ask for no sales tax or whatever?

KURWA: Yeah, that would be a good start. You should be like, you know what? This is, like...

Mr. KURWA: Yeah.

KURWA: So, dope and I really hate to leave it behind. Can you take the tax off?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KURWA: We decided to apply some of my favorite approaches in real shopping environments, only with Hussein doing the bargaining.

(Soundbite of song "Shaft Theme Song")

KURWA: Our first stop is an urban boutique in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Hussein finds a couple of shirts he likes, and then, as I've advised, visibly hems and haws over the price of it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KURWA. So, I'm wondering is there any way you can - you guys can take anything off the price on this, like a two or you guys...?

Unidentified Man #1: No, (unintelligible).

KURWA: The salesman tells my brother that the price is what it is, in other words, no discount.

Unidentified Man #1: You know, we're in the business of making money, not giving things away, you know?

KURWA: But then, as we get ready to leave the store, the salesman calls my brother back and asks if he really wants those shirts. Suddenly, the clothing's being rung up at a 10-percent discount.

Unidentified Man: Yeah. I gave it to you just because, you know, it's like, why not? You know, you wanted these shirts; you're here; you spent some time here. I don't want to see you go out without the shirts you wanted, you know what I'm saying? I give you...

KURWA: The salesman says with him, the biggest bargaining chip a shopper's got is if they're a repeat customer. Well, we'll file that away in the repertoire. Feeling confident, Hussein is now Mr. Let's Make a Deal. So, we decided to head to a corporate department store.

Mr. KURWA: I had a question. I was wondering, is there any way you can come down on this little bit, like, I've got, like, a gift card I am working with and I don't have that much...

Unidentified Man #2: I - I do not own Macy's.

KURWA: You catch that? Carlos in men's designer says he does not own Macy's; he can't give us a price break. But there is a happy ending to this story. A few days later, my brother tells me bargaining works at the dentist, too. When Hussein told Dr. Eh he didn't have insurance, his $100 cleaning only cost him 50 bucks. For NPR News, I'm Nishat Kurwa in San Francisco.

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