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PRIVATE LIVES

The Art of the Deal : No One Wants to Be a Sucker When It Comes to Bargaining

December 02, 1990|MARGO KAUFMAN

HOW MANY WORDS do you want to read today--200, 300? This column is supposed to be 850 words. But let's make a deal.

Don't want to bargain? Neither do I. Yet, lately it seems as if the world has become a big bazaar. Maybe it's the recession, but price tags everywhere have come unglued. On Main Street in Santa Monica, where I sometimes shop, it used to be that I'd pick up an item for a closer look and a supercilious clerk would say, "$500," and I'd put it down. Now as soon as something catches my eye, the supercilious clerk chirps, "I can give it to you a little cheaper."

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against lower prices. I just don't like to haggle. Once a price starts fluctuating, I know I can't win. Someone--anyone!--is bound to get a better deal. And what fun is buying something for $300 that used to be $500 when tomorrow it's going to be $160?

Lots of fun for some people. "I like to bargain better than I like sex," says my sister-in-law, Robbie. "When I get a good deal, it makes my whole week." What's a good deal? "A 75%-off sale--that's a bargain. Ten cents on the dollar--that's a bargain. Of course, then I say, 'I love it, but can you do a little better on the price?' "

I wouldn't have the nerve. I'm never sure when dickering is appropriate. It used to be something you did only on vacation. If I go to a picturesque stall in a foreign land and an older woman sitting behind a pile of straw hats demands 2,000 pesos or won or some other oversized currency that has a guy with a mustache on it, then I know I'm supposed to say, "1,500." But now people dicker everywhere.

"I was behind this woman in the checkout line at the supermarket," my grandmother says, "and the cashier tells her, 'That will be $168.42.' And this woman says, 'I'll give you $100.' " She was up to $125 when Grandma left the store.

Of course, sometimes you have to bargain just to stay even, like when you're trying to get any five rooms of carpet cleaned for the coupon price of $24.95 while an abusive representative keeps warning you that the steam cleaning is absolutely useless without the color brighteners, Teflon coating and preconditioning (none of which are included).

"There's always an angle," my brother, Bobby, says. "That's the root of all bargains--the unknown. Like I bought a $400 suit for $225. I thought I got a great price, and then they clobbered me on alterations. Such a deal. Nobody could have walked out with that suit unless he was 6-11 and didn't want finished bottoms."

And to think I called my brother for some bargaining tips. I wanted a wall built in my yard and had been taking bids. My lowest bidder, a contractor from Tonga, the Friendly Islands, measured and said his price was $1,000, "but for you, $950." I didn't know what to say.

"Tell him you'll give him $500," Bobby advised. "If you want a good price, you've got to be ridiculous." I couldn't be that ridiculous.

My husband agreed that I had to negotiate. "I don't think they have a word for fixed prices in the Friendly Islands," Duke said. "Tell him $800, and he'll settle for $850." And he did. But why couldn't he just ask for that? "Because then he thinks people will feel cheated if they don't get it for $700," Duke explained.

Nobody wants to feel like a sucker. And I suppose that a lot of folks would look at my nice new wall and fret that they could have gotten it for less. Not me. I have this principle about bargaining called the Mexican Blouse Theory. It goes like this: You're at a booth in Tijuana. You see an embroidered peasant blouse that costs $25. You rant and rave for 45 minutes until the senora agrees to part with it for $3. But ask yourself: Do you really want a $3 blouse?

"Do I really want another brass Aztec calendar?" says my friend Doug. "No, but if I can get it for $5, what the heck?" He sees bargaining as a competitive sport at which he excels. "It has all the advantages of exercise. Your heart gets pumping. You raise your voice. You pace, you pound, you wag fingers."

That is not my idea of a pleasant shopping experience. And neither is this: "You must be willing to walk away," Doug says. "It's the basic rule of bargaining. If you can walk away, you can't lose."

Last year, my husband and I were in Hong Kong, home of the adjustable price tag. I fell in love with an adorable pair of shoes. I was ready to buy them, but then Duke, who likes bargaining in a foreign country because it's one of the few social interactions possible when you know only 20 words of the language, decided to get me a better price. I watched in horror as he and the salesman bickered over $30 HK.

"Let's go," Duke said, leading me away from my beautiful shoes. "It's an act," he whispered. Luckily for him, the salesman ran after us and met our price.

Then the most incredible thing happened. I'd be happy to tell you about it.

Just make me an offer.

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