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June 08, 2010

An asker and a reader walk into a store...

Saturday morning, (May 22, that is. Still catching up with these reports.) I met up with a reader of this blog. We've traded emails and even had an asking-related phone call when she negotiated her first salary after college. She got wind of my whereabouts and suggested coffee.

Her name, by the way, is Priya, and she rocks.

An hour into our get together, we discovered we have a lot in common: both love Spain, both love writing, both care about the future of journalism, both appreciate a well made cup of joe. I also discovered that Priya is comfortable asking for anything -- a better salary, better opportunities at work, input from colleagues and mentors -- anything except a discount.

"Do you have to be somewhere after this?" I inquired.

"Not immediately, no," she answered.

Fatal last words.

"Well then! Let's ask! You and me, a retail extravaganza. Let's just see what happens. We'll try a few places around here, ask for discounts in a bunch of different ways and then I'll blog about the results. What do you think?"

"Let's do it!"

We established our aim before setting out: I wanted to show Priya how fun asking is and that there's nothing to be afraid of, including rejection. And she was game to try anything as long as it improved her asking skills. And maybe scored some deals!

Here is how our adventure unfolded, as I remember it three weeks later.

STOP ONE: Tourist trap across from Ford's Theater, filled with figurines, flags and flimsy plastic memorabilia.

Target: I spotted a Lincoln Monument replica for $7. It would make a great addition to that pile of crap in the back seat of my car. I have ancient magazines, an extra pair of shoes, an emergency bottle of wine, but no Lincoln Monument figurine!

Approach: Round down a sum. If a book is $5.50, ask if they'll take $5. If it's $43, shoot for an even $40.

Build up: Before we approached the counter, Priya confessed she was nervous. By then I suspected we looked like potential shoplifters. We'd been roaming the tiny store looking for something cheap. We stopped occasionally to exchange hushed comments about strategy, darting our eyes left and right to make sure the cashier couldn't hear us.

"Ok, let me try this first round," I offered. "Just stand next to me and watch. Remember, you have nothing to lose by asking. Even when people say no, they're super nice."

We approached the register and I set Lincoln on the counter.

"Hi! I found a souvenir I like, but I was wondering if I could have this for $5?"

"It's $7," the cashier replied.

"Yes, I saw that, but $5 is more in line with my budget. Would you take $5?"

"No!" she repeated, stupefied.


"Seven dollars!!"

We turned on our heels as the cashier glared at us like the shoplifters we weren't.

Post-game analysis: Well then ---- not how I was envisioning my first asking tutorial to go. What would Priya think? Fortunately, there was an almost identical merchant a few doors down. Time to try a different strategy.

STOP TWO: The Bigger Better Tourist Trap, on a corner. Large, glitsy, with prices to match.

Target: Priya saw a display of towels with White House, Air Force 1 and military logos. "Actually, we need a dish towel!" she exclaimed.

Approach: It was Priya's turn to ask for a discount and forge a bold pathway to success, nerves (and sorry precedent) be damned.

"Hi!" she said with a smile.

"Hi," replied the cashier.

"I'm interested in buying this towel, but there's no price tag. How much is it?"

The cashier rang it up.


"Can I give you $9?"


"Yes, $9," Priya said, voice perfectly steady. Fantastic!

"But the pricetag says $18."

"I have $9 cash and that's what my budget is. Can you give it to me for that, please?"

"It's eighteen! No!"

Stifling our laughs we ran outside.

Slow-mo instant replay:
"Itz eiiiii-teen... nooooooooo!"

And Team Asker is 0-2. Gotta step up. Gotta rally! Outside, I congratulated Priya. Her first retail asking! Then I noted that requesting half off right off the bat was a bit drastic, but it was still great she tried. Opening your mouth is half the battle. My year of requests resulted in a 73 percent success rate, and there was no reason she couldn't average that over time, too.

STOP THREE: Luxury lingerie boutique a block away.

Target: A lace thong for our imaginary friend.

Approach: State a budget, state a reason for the purchase, be nice and see if the sales person will accommodate. And stretch Priya's comfort zone by asking in a fancy boutique, this time around.

Build up: Almost everything in the store was silk and the prices were correspondingly sumptuous. To avoid blowing our cover as we found the right item to ask about, we pretended to be shopping for a bachelorette party.

"Do you think she will like this?" Priya asked.

"Yes! Or what do you think about this lavender number?"

"Oh, totally! That is going to drive her guy wild!"

"Great! But hmm, I wonder if it's in line with what we wanted to spend."

"Gee, I don't know! It's on sale, but I think it's still a little pricey," Priya continued.

"I agree!"

"I wonder if I should talk to the cashier."


Execution: We brought the panties from the sale rack to the counter. They were around $30.

"Hi. We're shopping for a friend's bachelorette party and found these, which I think she'd like. But they're still a little more than what we wanted to spend. Is there anything you can do to help us on this price?" Priya asked.

Elegant. Great form. What a pro!

The saleswoman smiled and thought about it for a moment.

"They're already on sale, so I can't go lower, but how much did you want to spend?"

"Around $20."

"Well, we have something similar over here, and they're a lot more affordable. Have you heard of Spanx? These are only $16 and every bride should have a pair. Or let me know if you want other suggestions."

We pretended to inspect the Spanx, but meanwhile I whispered to Priya that this was a good beginning if we wanted to negotiate more. We had the saleswoman helping us, on our side.

Normally -- if I really wanted to buy something out of my price range and really wanted that particular item -- I'd shift strategies here. I'd explain why that object is particularly special, or why I really like that one and is there any way they could make it work. I'd build rapport, ask if we could knock off the sales tax, see if there was something I could offer in exchange (buying more items at the lower price, for example), or shooting for a cash discount.

But since there was no bachelorette party, and no Spanx on the horizon for either of us, I didn't want to persuade the sales woman only to turn on our heels.

We thanked her and left.

Post-game analysis: Three attempts, three failures. And I call myself the Daily Asker? I apologized to Priya, who was very gracious about it all. But then I remembered what this was about -- what this whole Daily Asker experiment was about -- trying, taking risks, pushing personal boundaries and the boundaries of what's socially acceptable. The means, not the end... the journey not the destination... yeehaw!

"Let's shoot for two more -- make it an even five!" I cried.

Priya agreed.

STOP FOUR: Zola Wine and Kitchen, a purveyor of fine wines.

Target: A bottle of white for under $10.

Approach: Triple. First, build rapport with the salesperson. Second, see if you can score a discount by paying cash. Third, clearly exhibit a spending limit and encourage new ally on sales floor to try to help.

Build-up: Outside, we pooled our bills and saw we had around $7. Inside, we went straight for the under $10 white wines section -- a special display, in fact. We selected one and went up to the counter. I noticed that the saleswoman had a cool bracelet, so I complimented it. Not strategic -- an honest compliment. Believe it or not.

Then we got to work.

Execution: "Hi!" Priya said.

"Hi," the woman replied.

"How are you?"

"Good you?"

"Good, thanks! So I have a question for you... We'd like to get this bottle of wine but we only have around $7 between the two of us. Is there any kind of sale going on that we don't know about, or can you be flexible on the price?" Priya asked.

"Let me see... Well, I can give you 20 percent off with this neighborhood card. That brings it to $8.50." [I forgot the exact percentage but it was in that ballpark.] "It's a good thing you asked. You have to try, right?"

"I'm a big believer in asking," I answered. "This means a lot to us. Thank you."

We pooled our bills and some loose change and had barely enough.

All smiles, we left the store. I handed Priya the bottle: She had earned it.

By the way, if you're ever needing some wine in D.C., the store is on 9th, near Chinatown. Thanks, wine merchant! You made our day!!!

Post-game analysis: Priya made a personal connection and took the time to make eye contact and converse. She didn't ask for a huge discount and made sure to be appreciative of her generosity. And by asking to pay cash, she demonstrated a very clear limit on what we could afford. Interestingly, the saleswoman didn't ask us if we had credit cards. (I saw the card reader, so that would have been a payment option.) I think she was genuinely pleased to make our day.
If you do get that kind of reaction from someone, I recommend using it wisely, not abusively. But: YAY!

After stopping in a mix of boutiques and mom n' pops, I suggested we try the ultimate challenge: a large chain store.


Target: A $2.69 box of tissues for Priya's apartment.

Approach: Do whatever it takes to get some kind of discount on those tissues. It would be hard, but not impossible. Aim for greatness.

Build-up: I reminded Priya that sometimes all it takes is asking at the cash register if they have any unadvertised sales. If that didn't work, she should try anything else we'd practiced: asking for a cash discount, trying to round down the sum, building up personal rapport, stating a budget, giving a compelling reason for the purchase.

Execution: Priya brought the tissues to the counter and asked right off the bat: "Are these on sale, because they're a little more than what I wanted to spend."

The saleswoman looked a bit incredulous but rang them up.

"They are not on sale, sorry."

"Oh!" Priya said. "It's just that I don't have enough cash on me and I really need these tissues. Is there anything you can do to help?"

The saleswoman bounced her gaze between Priya and me -- checking for a hidden camera? Were we about to Punk her? -- saw how earnest we were, then relaxed.

"Let me see. I think there was some sale, but I don't know if it was this week or last week. Just a second..."

She left the cash register and started looking through the tissue display. Meanwhile a line was forming, but she was now committed to helping Priya.

We exchanged guilty-thrilled looks. The man behind us mumbled something about this being "the worst day of my life for reasons you can't even imagine, and what the hell is taking so long?" and I turned around and said something to appease him.

A minute later our new friend returned.

"I have something! These are on sale! And it is not marked!" The box was 88 cents -- a huge discount compared to the one on the counter.

"Really!?" Priya almost squealed. "Thank you!!"

Sure, she only saved $1.81. But that's also more than 70 percent.

Post-game analysis: Since the first dud was mine, on her four askings Priya had a 50 percent success rate. For a first-day crash course, that is fantastic! I'm so proud of her, and I can't wait to hear about her next victories.
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