No matter how dire the economy, every woman has a line she won't cross until she's forced. For some, it's premium salon hair care; they'd rather play peekaboo with their roots than move to Supercuts and Suave shampoo. For others, it's first-run apparel; they'd prefer to wait for a Macy's sale than paw through the castoffs at Salvation Army.
But what happens once you've stretched out your manicure appointments to the limits of social acceptability? After you've traded weekends of boutique shopping for occasional jaunts to H&M? What else can you do when you've done without and downgraded to the ascetic standards of a nun?
There's only so low you can go when it comes to beauty and fashion.
Fortunately, there is another option, and it's one that a growing number of shoppers are using as the economy darkens: bargaining.
Dickering. Haggling. Negotiating. It's all the same thing. Consumers are talking down prices to get a better deal.
"Everybody's looking for innovative ways to save a few dollars. If that means going to a garage sale and haggling a $10 item down to $5, it's something people are doing right now," said Pam Goodfellow, senior analyst at BIGresearch, a consumer intelligence firm that, in a 2008 survey, found that 50% of Americans were haggling for better prices on all kinds of products in light of the economy.
Price negotiations are now happening across the product spectrum -- not only for the big-ticket items that have long been the norm, but for beauty care, apparel and other categories once seen as nonnegotiable.
"In the past, people just didn't want to negotiate because they didn't want to appear cheap. Now, more people are aware and desirous of negotiating," said Michael Soon Lee, author of the book "Black Belt Negotiating."
"Everything in this country is negotiable under the right circumstance," added Lee, who says he's been able to negotiate better prices for such items as gasoline, healthcare and groceries.
All it takes is a lot of practice, a little patience and understanding the rules of the game, he contends.
So I decided to test Lee's theory in the feminine realms of beauty and fashion -- two areas in which I'd never thought to negotiate.
"Clothing is very negotiable," Lee says. "Almost every retail manager has the ability to discount any item in the store 10 to 15% to keep you from leaving."
You just need to make sure you're negotiating with the person who has the authority to discount the price, he said.
You also need to make sure that you begin your negotiation attempts at an appropriate level. According to Lee, the easiest targets for haggling are the places where it's already expected. Lee suggests garage sales as a good place to start, but, as I was starting my research on a weekday, I headed for the Goodwill in Eagle Rock -- one of my favorite places to score barely worn boys' clothes for my pants-ripping 6-year-old.
I scooped up a couple of Gap items priced at $3 apiece and headed to the counter, where I asked to speak with the manager. I'd found him, it turned out, so I asked if he could give me a better deal.
"No," he said flat-out. I was, after all, asking for a discount on $6 worth of items.
"What if I bought three things instead of two?" I offered, attempting to sweeten the deal with another trick -- buying in bulk.
"We don't discount clothes," he said.
No ambiguity there. I put the items back and moved on to Eagle Rock Boulevard, where I planned to hit up two less-institutionalized secondhand shops. Twerps, for kids clothes, and Owl Talk, for girl stuff. At both shops, I did the same thing. But this time I actually got the discount -- $1 off $11 worth of boys' shirts, and $2 off $26 of women's clothes.
Though $3 off $37 may not seem like much, it was about 8% off the list price. Not so bad.
Emboldened, I decided to try mainstream retail (my local CVS) and beauty products (a $27 bottle of Biolage shampoo). I stepped to the counter with the liter bottle and asked for the manager.
"Can you give me a better price on this?" I asked.
"We don't do that," he said, looking uneasy.
"Why not?" I countered, as if asking for this sort of discount were routine.
"Human resources," he said. "It would look like we're hooking people up with a special deal."
Fair enough. I put the bottle back and moved on.
At the Aveda store at Glendale Galleria, the salesclerk nearly dropped her tray of tea when I asked for a price break on the $26.50 listed for the liter bottle of Shampure.
"We don't do that," the woman said. "Not at the corporate store level."
That said, she did tell me I might find a better deal at a salon that uses Aveda products.
A curious byproduct of asking for a discount is that you learn other money-saving tips. Every time I had been denied a discount, I was given advice on how I could save money. At the CVS, for example, I was told the store often honors expired coupons. At the Goodwill, I learned I'd just missed a sale on the very items I was trying to purchase. I had no idea Goodwill even held sales.