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August 18, 2008

Reversing the roles: Retailer as asker

August 18. Day 49.

One thing that needs to happen for negotiation to be possible is buyers need to lose the conventional framework that respects the price tag. When I see a listed price, it usually feels strange to bargain. Some things -- ceramics in Tangiers, car insurance for a corporate fleet -- are perceived as more negotiable than others. But toothpaste? a real estate commission? a cell phone contract? -- they're rarely discussed. The way I'm starting to see things, every pricetag is itself a request. "Will you pay x for y?" the merchant asks. And 99.9 percent of the time, buyers say, "Sure!"

A new dry cleaner just opened in place of a defunct flower shop, and after passing by the construction and a big "coming soon sign," I stopped in to ask about prices. A dress costs around $8 or $9. How did they decide that? Based on focus groups, the competition, whatnot. Prices will always be as high as the market will tolerate. But when I heard that specific figure, and contrasted it to so many cheaper cleaners within a mile radius that do an identical job, it made me think about retailers as askers. This new business is essentially asking $8.50 for a dress, proposing a transaction, and people appear to be obliging that request. Business is booming.

But what if we subverted this convention and started making counteroffers for dry cleaning, not to mention big ticket items like commissions? (A new survey found that commissions are rarely negotiated, even though most agents say they would willingly come down a few percentage points.) Sales staff at large, corporate stores might claim they do not have the lattitude, and smaller places might appear like they can't afford to negotiate. But if only we consumers tried. That's all I'm saying.

One more thought. I'm thinking of interviewing some excellent negotiators: a friend in the hotel industry who could talk about getting travel perks, and a woman who chipped 5k off of her new car just by walking off the lot because the asking price (great term) was too expensive. Would you be interested reading their strategies, in their own words? Please drop a comment, if you're so inclined!

Today's request is still in the works. I stopped by a few apartments, and when I find the right one I'll try to talk down the rent based on advice offered here and here, but it's going to be hard in this market. Meanwhile, I must get back to writing this dissertation, or I won't have any job offers to negotiate come spring.

UPDATE: Spurred by congress's smart move a year or so ago to attack overdraft fees -- the arrogantly levied $35 for each time the bank supplies $.14 to people who overdraw their accounts because they got duped by online ledger balances (never trust they're up to date! I've gotten burned that way!), or simply refuse to be embarrassed by having a debit card rejected at the register -- I decided to opt-out of the fees all together. I doubt congress's impulse will become a law in the near future. It's too consumer friendly, and far too logical, to pass under this administration.

So I called my branch, Washington Mutual, to ask if they could toggle that feature off, please. The response: Not on the phone. "We don't have any way of verifying that it's really the account holder on the other end. You can come in and fill out a form in person." Hmmm. I'm not a fan of double standards -- since the bank does let customers apply for home loans over the phone, and if that's not personal, I don't know what is. But let's say I'm feeling generous today, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. On the off chance they actually do have my security in mind, and don't just want to make opting out impossibly difficult, I won't rush to condemn them here. I will, however, let you know whether opting out at the branch was easy or not.

Gained: Zip.
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