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December 21, 2010

When seeking retail discounts, attitude is everything

I took the day off work yesterday and went shopping with Gem. We had some last minute Christmas presents to find and we wanted to catch up after we each had our share of stories to tell. So after a stop for coffee and tea, we hit a few cute local boutiques.

The first one we stopped in, Pretty Please, had a fabulous array of earrings. As I inspected the offerings I realized I could finish all my shopping right there, at that counter! Gorgeous wares, low effort and a reasonable price? Fa-la-la-la-la!

As I lined them up on the counter, I asked the saleswoman, "If I get a few pairs could you give me a little break? I don't know, whatever price you think is fair."

It was basically reflex, since the prices were already not that bad. Yet I considered that I was buying almost half a dozen, and they were surely marked up enough for the store to make a nice profit.

Why not try?

"How many pairs are you getting?" she wondered.

"Let's see...
One pair for Gem.
One pair for my sister.
One pair for a cousin.
One pair for another friend.
And one pair for... me.
Five pairs. No pressure, just thought I'd see."

"Sure, I can do something."

When she rang me up, my jaw dropped. She gave me four pairs at about 30 percent off, and one pair full price. 

"You are so sweet! Thanks! I almost didn't ask, because I was thinking that the price is great and they're presents, but I figured why not... if you're earning what you want on them and I can stretch my dollars a little, we're both happy, right? Thanks so much! I will totally be back."

"It's totally cool you asked, and I hope you come back soon. You know," she added, "from our perspective it's all about the attitude."

"What attitude?"

"It's how you ask. You were relaxed and friendly. It wasn't like you were expecting it."

"Give me a discount NOW!" I joked.

"Yeah. You were sweet about it. We like helping people who are nice."

Score one more for the smile approach.

For more about attitudes and moods while asking, here's a scientific/statistical write-up from my year of daily asking: (scroll down to bolded questions 3 and 4.)

For tips on how to ask in a variety of settings, here's a 3-part series, called 44 Easy Asks:

And for a history of earrings, check out the blog where I found that photo:

Part-time salary negotiation: Expert Q&A

Today I'm excited to introduce a new feature on The Daily Asker: A series of expert Q&A's, in which I interview people who are excellent askers or negotiators about very specific topics. Think of these posts as kittens sprinkled with powdered sugar and armed with machetes.

Short. Sweet. And, when used correctly, lethally effective.

To kick things off I decided to focus on a subject that keeps sending people to my blog via Google keyword searches, and which is especially relevant in this economy:

Part-Time Salary Negotiation

Expert: Victoria Pynchon
Twitter bio: author, attorney mediator-arbitrator and negotiation trainer and consultant
Check out: "How to negotiate your job back after getting fired" via Forbes.
Why she rocks: She wants the world to be a better place for women and every day she is taking huge steps to make it that way. How? By teaching women to be better negotiators, more supportive of one another and, most importantly, their own best advocates.

When you negotiate a salary for a part-time job, is it any different from doing so for a full-time job?

Pynchon: In principle there's no difference between negotiating a part-time and a full-time salary. It comes down to doing a market value analysis, which means asking "What is the market paying?" and "What do I bring to the market, or the part-time job, that somebody else wouldn't?" This depends on the job and the industry. You can prorate your target salary based on annual compensation or work up from an hourly rate, but the idea is the same as with a full-time job. And yes, you should always negotiate.

Since part-time jobs don't usually include benefits, vacation time and whatever else is included in those bigger (but dwindling) compensation packages, does that change the negotiation game?

Pynchon: The best strategy is to focus on items that are of high value to you but low expense to your employer. If your employer has overhead, if your employer has full-time employees, it wouldn't cost that much more to add you to the health plan. You might be willing to work less per hour if they'd be willing to put you on the health plan. The problem is that people don't think. They just put you into a cubby hole: "You're part-time so you're not going to get health benefits." Why? What's the extra cost to the employer to provide you, a part-time employee, with health benefits? [RP: Here's one uber-detailed answer:]

What is a common pitfall with part-time salary negotiations and how do you work around it?

Pynchon: Professional people, especially women, are totally screwed by part-time employment, because they work way more than part time. And they're not being compensated for the additional time. They're just working harder. With part-time work for lawyers, I've never seen it work for anyone but the law firm. So that is something that should be negotiated. You need to address the hours worked, the schedule, the expectations and the workload, and how excess hours are going to be treated. Bring up these issues before you shake hands, or your earnings will be a lot smaller than what you bargained for.

Thank you, Vickie!

And now a question for you, readers:

Can you think of any specific scenarios you'd like addressed or topics you'd like to learn about in these short, tactical, expert Q&A's?

December 19, 2010

How to score a discount on a wedding dress

Months before the dress shopping journey, when we first sat down and drew up a budget, Mr. A and I put down $1000 as target. In all honesty, I expected mine to cost $200. I'd find it on sale at Nordstrom Rack. Simple. Basic. Classy. Who'd be crazy enough to buy a dress that will cost her $600 an hour to wear it?

Apparently, I am.

Because after all those resolutions, I saw the dress.



Ok, here's how this happened. I'd already been to three places and nothing called out to me. I tried on everything from statuesque, flowy Grecian gowns to a slinky Marylin Monroe get-up to traditional a-lines and lacey senorita looks. Some were blah, some were quite lovely, but nothing was moi.

One afternoon, on a whim, I stumbled into an upscale bridal retailer. I had 30 minutes to spare between meetings in the area, they had no appointments at the time (it was that kind of place, with appointments and consultations and basically way above my budget) so I figured, why not. Try on something that costs as much as a car in India. Live a little.

And of course, that's where I saw the dress.

$2,300. Plus $400 for alterations and $300 for a veil and shoes?

Divided by 5 hours? You do the math.

Still drooling, I made a mental note of the brand, went home and started a bigtime Google campaign. For weeks I tried to find it for a better price. No luck. I tried on other dresses at more affordable and even similarly priced stores, doing everything I could to forget it. No go. Finally, I called back and asked if they could come down on the price. I explained that it's waaaaay above my budget but I love it. Any hope?

And just like that, she offered to sell the sample for half price.

I went in and tried it on again, to be sure.

She told me the dress had been worn cumulatively for an hour.

It was spotless, and with a cleaning it would be like new.

But I hesitated. It was still a lot.

And then I remembered what she said. "We're closed Thursday, because we need to prepare for a major sale Friday."

So I asked: "If I buy it tonight, can you already give me the sale price?"

Here's what she answered: "Yes. But please. Go home, sleep on it, and we'll hold it for you until tomorrow."

And that is how I ended up buying an almost-new $2300 dress for $800. Still more than my Nordstrom Rack fantasy gown, but perfect in every way.

Here's what I learned:

1. Give yourself plenty of time. Rushing brides have zero power.

2. Be upfront about your budget. At every place I went, I told them my budget and every single retailer was willing to come down on the price. Paying sticker is completely unnecessary. Just fyi. :)

3. If you're buying veil, shoes etc, don't forget to negotiate. I decided not to buy accessories yet, but I would have tried to get the total down if I was buying everything at once. Hopefully I can still work a better price for the extras, to keep the whole combo under our target.

4. Comparison shop to death. Sometimes a discount retailer has the same dress for $200 less, two hours away. (I saw this with other brands, but not mine.) Worth it? You decide. But at least you have the option. Also, tons of websites have used/sample/discount dresses, and either you shop there or use that as a bargaining chip.

5. Be honest with yourself. I thought an understated white cocktail dress from a department store was right for me, but once I tried on a few frillier dresses, I discovered I wanted something more conventional. So be it.

6. But remember that it's just a few hours. Just one night. I say this because I wasn't willing to pay more than what I did. Maybe a little more -- but definitely not sticker price on that dress.

Bottom line: Every bridal retailer, from the discount warehouse type to three luxury boutiques, was willing to come down on the price -- sometimes even before I asked. Hey, even 10 percent is something. And if you're willing to make compromises, you can find some really sweet deals.

[image credit:]

December 17, 2010

Wedding Budget

Long ago I started posting about wedding planning and negotiations. Then some stuff happened, and then more stuff.

Well, at last it's time to pick up where I left off!

Here's what Mr. A and I budgetting for. I won't include amounts (yet) because this will affect ongoing negotiations. The list will probably change as we advance, but here's a general plan.

1. Church: ceremony + priest fee
2. Church decoration
3. Ceremony music
4. Reception: rental + food + cake + alcohol + coffee + insurance + tips
5. Reception music
6. Personnel fees (waiters, security guards, whatnot, if applicable)
7. Dress+accessories+alteration+shoes
8. Some kind of hair intervention
9. Tux
10. Rings
11. Invitations
12. Photographer
13. Day before tango lesson for our guests
14. Night before fun (rehearsal dinner/cocktails/bbq/tbd)
15. Babysitter for the kiddies
16. Marriage license

The specifics range from very simple (ipod; do my own makeup) to more complicated (we want a reception that runs late and lets us dance -- on a Saturday).

My goal is twofold: 1) bring the price down on every item that exceeds our target budget through asking, negotiation and/or compromise and 2) avoid paying the Bridal Surplus.

How will I fare? First update, just around the corner.

[image credit:]

December 16, 2010

Is being strong always courageous?

A few days ago,  I wrote a Facebook update confessing my most private thoughts: "Five relatives in the hospital in the past five weeks. And what scares me most is that this is just the beginning."

Someone wrote back expressing sympathy and support. I thanked her.

And then I erased the status update.

The next day, I told my cousin everything that's been going on. (FYI: My dad had a heart attack last month and since then four other relatives have been in the hospital. Throw in a series of deadlines I was thrilled to work on, a cold I am less than thrilled to have, and some atypical and very annoying household chores that happened to fall in this period, and I've been hovering somewhere between stressville and insomnialand.) She answered, "You are so strong, I don't know how you do it. You just have to keep staying strong. That's all you can do."

Someone else also said, "You manage to stay calm during the most stressful moments. That's impressive."

I nodded, unsure how to answer.

Today I am wondering why.

Why is it impressive to remain calm when everything is falling apart? Why do we value and appreciate people who bottle up what's bothering them? Why do we want to appear competent and even-keeled in periods of great stress? What is so mature and respectable about staying in control and on top of things -- instead of temporarily ceding; yielding to the stress; readjusting; not answering the phone as often; scheduling a massage; pushing back a deadline; screaming into the great blue yonder?

I admit I think that way, too. I see people who have been to hell and back and without so much as a misplaced strand of hair and I want to applaud them. Learn from them. Be them.


Here's what I came up with:
1. We reward people instinctively for not dumping their burden onto us. Who wants to hear about someone else's ulcer or car accident or work problems? Unless the storyteller spices the tale with a bit of gossip or snark, why would anyone want to list to someone else's depressing woes? Sadness, like joy, is contagious. 
2. We reward people instinctively for not asking us to help them. When a friend tells you her car broke down and she has a job interview tomorrow, the nice thing to do is offer to give her a ride. When someone at work confesses he's drowning in deadlines, you know the follow up question is whether you can help proofread his 89-page strategic report. And we don't want always want to do this. So the people who handle their own messes (whether caused by  misfortune or incompetence) are the ones we seek out. Because being told about a problem is construed as an invitation to help solve it.
3. Society needs people to stay clam and competent when disaster strikes. If everyone fell apart, how would anything get done in the darkest hour? So we thank those strong people. We recognize them. And long before a mass-scale disaster strikes, we cultivate them. Those who withstand personal dramas will be more valuable when the big drama hits.
4. In many contexts, it's crucial to not let disruptions get to you. At work, for example, or in most team settings, considerate people don't let personal woes disrupt the group's progress. That would be unproductive. So we learn to smooth the seismograph of our emotions and carry on. 
5. Pride: Admitting you're in a hard place implies you can't handle the heat. We are trained to believe that the situation is never difficult, but that we are incompetent. Or not competent enough -- which is just as bad when you think about it.
6 (the other side of point #2). People don't want to burden others who are down. Confess you're tired? Then your old neighbor will never ask you for a ride again -- and you're the only one around who can easily drive him to the pharmacy. Tell friends you're overwhelmed with work? Then they won't invite you as much anymore so they don't distract you -- even though you'd love a break. Tell your boss your kid is sick? She won't bring you into the complex new project; why add to your to-do list when you'll probably be too frazzled to perform. So we learn to be quiet, be stoic, nondisruptive. We keep pitching in.
7. Lastly, and sadly, some people prey on those who are down. In some cases, the second we show vulnerability, that's the moment people kick us hardest. Depending on your goals and situation, revealing you're struggling can be the worst move ever. 
Whether I like it or not, I guess these are the rules I live by. I made this list, after all. I do wonder what the alternatives are. What's the middle ground between falling apart and being superman? What kind of sympathy, lenience or patience should people be reasonably be entitled to ask for when they're down?

Maybe some people are immune (or just inured) to stress, sadness or disruptions. But how many others merely think they are -- or pretend they are? At what cost do we plaster on smiles and append face-saving exclamation points at the end of every other sentence? How often does it make sense to sacrifice our needs for the comfort of the group (or other individuals) and how often are we needlessly and recklessly heroic?

As a final note, I'm tempted to say this problem especially affects professional women. The second you cancel a meeting because you have a fever or take a personal day, the change happens. It's silent and subtle, but from that moment you're written off. Soft. Unreliable. Hormonal. Focused on family. But I also believe the dangers are just as great for men. Mr. A would never dream of canceling or pushing back a meeting just because he's under the weather; he's worked with high fevers and during periods of great personal stress. He powers through it and when I tell him to take care of himself, he answers that deadlines are deadlines.

So women -- who occasionally do dare reveal the cracks in their shellac -- get tossed. Rotten eggs. And men -- who keep on trucking and keep up appearances at all costs -- get heart attacks before they're grandpas.

Women pay with income, respect, advancement potential. Men pay with health, pain, hospital bills.

Basically, we're all f*cked.

Do you see any solutions? What have you experienced? Do you share your misfortunes or keep up appearances?