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The Kohler whirlpool tub at Home Depot was exactly what she wanted, but Anne Lundy, of Huntington Station, New York, wasn't thrilled with the $1,200 price tag, even though it was the best deal on that particular model she'd been able to find. So she decided to ask the salesperson in the plumbing aisle if he could give her a discount -- and was disappointed by his response. "How about we take off $100?" he offered. "I was thinking more like $500," Lundy said, hoping she wasn't pressing her luck. When the salesperson said he couldn't go that low, Lundy employed a tried-and-true haggling strategy, even though she didn't know it at the time. She didn't say a word. "Okay, I think I can get you $350 off," he eventually said. "Let me ask my boss." Sure enough, Lundy got her whirlpool for only $850.
If you think car dealerships are the only places where you can haggle about price, you're wrong. Ten years ago 33 percent of Americans bargained. Today that figure is 71 percent, according to the America's Research Group, a firm that studies consumer behavior. A 2007 Consumer Reports survey found that 61 percent of its readers tried to bargain prices down -- and that more than 90 percent of them were successful. "As the economy weakens, haggling is likely to become even more common," says Rick Doble, editor of Savvy-discounts.com, which offers ways to live a frugal lifestyle. Doble himself claims to save about $9,000 a year this way. In addition to big-box stores like Home Depot, he has successfully talked his way into discounts at Kmart, Barnes & Noble, Marriott hotels, and his local supermarket.
Big ticket items. Among the easiest items to haggle for are appliances, furniture, home-improvement products, mattresses, bath fixtures, cameras, home electronics, and jewelry. The reason? The profit margins on them are big enough to allow retailers wiggle room. For example, good-quality kitchen cabinets may be marked up 100 to 200 percent, jewelry by even more. While there's no standard discount that you should anticipate getting, there are a few rules of thumb, particularly when it comes to home-improvement products: Aim for 30 percent off the price of windows (including Andersen and other top brands), 25 percent off bath fixtures, and 50 percent off some light fixtures.
Hotel rooms. You can get great deals on the Internet, but not necessarily the lowest possible price. For that you should call the hotel directly and tell the reservationist the best Internet price you were able to find. Then ask for a better deal. They may offer you a 10 to 25 percent discount -- even more in the off-season. Remember, hotels can't make money on empty rooms.
Bulk purchases. The more you buy, the more stores may be willing to negotiate with you since they don't want to risk losing your business. For example, if you purchase two or three pairs of shoes instead of one, it's worth a shot to ask for a 10 percent discount. Cases of wine are routinely discounted between 10 and 30 percent. Buy a few gallons of paint and request a "painter's discount" of 15 percent, or ask for 10 percent off on several rolls of wallpaper.
Anything damaged. Clothes, furniture, books, whatever -- all are worth haggling over. You may be able to get a discount of 5 percent to a whopping 85 percent, depending on whether the dress, say, has a makeup smudge that will come out in the wash or a broken zipper. Floor-model appliances or home-electronics items that are cosmetically marred should be good for at least an extra 10 percent off.
Anything already marked down. This includes items labeled "discontinued," "clearance" or "closeout." How much? There's no set figure, but you're not out of line if you ask for another 50 percent off.
Healthcare. Ninety-three percent of patients who asked for discounts from doctors, dentists, and pharmacists got them, according to Consumer Reports. One tactic is to ask your doctor before your appointment starts if she'd be able to give you a break on the portion of the bill that insurance doesn't cover. For hospital bills, call the billing office directly. It's totally up to their discretion, but they may trim the bill by 15 to 20 percent, and discounts of up to 30 percent are not unheard of if you pay immediately.
4 Ways to Be a Better Bargainer
1. Get savvy about a store's mark-up and discount policies. Study sales fliers and talk to friends who have shopped there. You'll be in much better shape to negotiate.
2. Don't limit yourself. While you naturally think of cash savings when haggling, try asking for extras -- free delivery, an upgrade of some kind, something thrown in -- instead.
3. Come armed with price comparisons. Google to find prices at other retailers for the exact item and bring printouts of the best deals. Ask the salesperson if he can beat an advertised price.
4. Pay cash if you can. If all else fails, tell them you'll pay cash rather than charge it (in which case the retailer has to pay the credit card company a cut).
How to Score a Good Deal
Haggle with the person who has the power to change the price. This is usually the manager of the department, but sometimes it's the salesperson.
Be polite. You're more likely to succeed if you smile and play nice. Be friendly and don't bad-mouth the product you're trying to get a discount on. If you get annoyed during a negotiation, don't show it.
Play the game. Remember these rules: Never reveal what you're willing to pay, never be enthusiastic, and always respond to offers you don't like by staying quiet. Make it the salesperson's job to break the uncomfortable silence.
Walk away. If your negotiations are going nowhere, be prepared to abandon your efforts. This shows the salesperson that you aren't bluffing, and may spur him to offer you a deal just to keep you in the store.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2009.