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December 12, 2009

Asking, seen from the other side

On Friday I met up with merchant whose business is not doing great.

He has tiny jewelry shop with gorgeous estate pieces, and while those are all over my budget, he's my go-to guy if I have something that needs fixing. Great prices, always timely, always personable, free parking, and a resident cat named Shadow. What more could a shopper ask for.

I've been a client for about a year, and at one point I mentioned to him I write. He didn't check where or what about (um, blog, balconies) before asking me to help him come up with some flyers and ad copy. The holidays are here, and he really needs to get people into his store.

I agreed. He gave me an old brochure and invited me to do whatever I wanted to it -- jazz it up, bring it to life, that sort of thing. I returned Friday with a few suggestions about the wording and general look (color scheme, etc) plus some slogans and ideas for possible holiday sales. He claimed he liked my ideas, I'll be elated if any of the suggestions translate into a boost for his business.

(I didn't ask to get paid, because not everything is about money. On this blog I realize I may appear selfish -- I focus on myself, I advance my needs, priorities and desires at the cost of someone else's (a merchant, a tired waiter, etc), I try to make sure I'm not getting the short end of any deal -- but that's actually training that goes against a different impuse, and, I hope, the more firmly ingrained one -- which is to help people unselfishly. Those are the episodes I don't discuss here.)

But here comes the reflection on asking:

His old flyer advertised a 30 percent discount on custom jewelry designs and stated, in bold: "Flyer must be presented at time of order." I suggested he either remove that, or be flexible about it. Speaking only for myself, I told him that I like it when a merchant says, "There's a coupon. Even though you don't have the printout, I got you covered." It makes me feel like an insider, like I got a "scoop." (Even if everyone else is getting the same deal. Psychology, I guess.)

But he was adamant on keeping it, and his reasoning stung me.

"If I don't ask them to show me the flyer when they order, then this is what they do: they tell me they're on a budget, I do everything I can to stick to that budget. I come out making 100 bucks after all the time and materials, and then they pull out the 30 percent flyer. I'm like, 'I have done everything to work with your needs, and now you want me to lose money on this transaction?' People will do whatever they can to get the price to the ground, even if it means forcing you out of business. They don't care about your bottom line."

Interesting. Asking for an extra 30 percent, or a final deal sweetener right when I pull out my credit card, and obtaining it, would make me feel triumphant. I would tell myself the merchant could always refuse, and that I maneuvered an amazing deal.

Of course, there is a world of difference between asking and pressuring/demanding. Each has its place.

Maybe the people he was lamenting about were ungracious or presented their "request" as an ultimatum. Honor the flyer or I'm out of here. And Yelping about you. Or maybe not, and he's just hurting because of the economy.

In any case, next time I'm bargaining hard for a crazy discount, particularly from a mom'n'pop, I'll remember the words of this bearded, bespeckled goldsmith: "People will do whatever they can to get the price to the ground, even if it means forcing you out of business."

A reminder to ask responsibly, especially as I head out today to hunt for Christmas presents.
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