How Much Can You Really Negotiate?



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Negotiating is a tricky, tricky game. I prefer doing it over email — I ponder my moves, come to a decision, and slide the page back across the virtual table. I understand the basics of negotiation, but no matter what I know, getting down to the business of making a deal face to face makes me clammy.

Which is why this was an interesting assignment — to see what I could negotiate in a day. And, some of those negotiations would have to be in person. I’d see what deals I could swing — on the street, in stores, wherever my travels around Manhattan took me (which, for people who live here, means roughly within 10 blocks of wherever you live).

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I also wanted to determine the value of said negotiations, so I developed a basic scale. I gave each interaction two scores, both on a scale of 0 to 10. The first score is for ease of negotiation (10 = piece of cake, 0 = no go), and the second is for how worth it the transaction was (10 = amazing, 0 = complete waste of time). Here’s what happened.
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Walk In The Park
I was feeling self-conscious about the whole ordeal, so I decided on an easy target — 8-year-olds selling school raffle tickets in Central Park. (I’m not proud of this.) So, instead of barreling through the swarm of second graders with my eyes averted, I seized my opportunity.

As soon as I made eye contact, they were upon me. I looked at the quietest kid in the group, big brown eyes, messy hair. “Five dollars each,” he said. “You could win a trip to Montreal.” How many have you sold? I asked. “None,” he said.

“Well, how about I give you $12 for three tickets.” He didn’t even hesitate. “Sure!” he said. We both felt good about it. Until I walked away and realized I had just cheated a kid out of $3 to make a point. I went back and gave him the rest of the money. Even then I felt like a jerk.

Total savings: Ultimately, none
Ease: 10
Worth it: 2 (I am glad I tried because I did end up supporting the raffle, which I otherwise would not have.)

Bartering For Berries
Now that I was warmed up, it felt like the world was my oyster. So, I was perhaps a little overconfident when I strolled up to the fruit stand on the corner of Amsterdam and 72nd Street a few minutes later. I knew that if I was going to negotiate, I couldn’t do it over a single pomegranate; I had to show I meant business. So I grabbed a bag of seedless grapes, a pear, a lemon, a box of raspberries, and, what the hell — some blackberries, too.

Total? $8.90, said the weathered, weary looking Middle Eastern man with chapped hands.

“Would you take $7.50?” I asked. He was puzzled. He said the price again, as if I must have misunderstood. “I know what it costs,” I said. “I’m wondering if you’re flexible on that price.” He looked at me as if I was from another planet.

Wait. This wasn’t Fairway. This was a stand on a street corner, some guy selling out-of-season fruit that might very likely have fallen off a truck on its way to Fairway. I’d been to the Middle East and had bartered there myself. Don’t tell me this guy doesn’t know how to negotiate. I looked at the other guy standing with him. “This your boss?” I asked.

“He give you good price,” the boss said. This was going nowhere.

“How about $8?”

“Give me $8.50,” the first man said. Done deal.

Total savings: 40 cents
Ease: 0
Worth it: 0

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Scored On eBay
Recently I’d found an Orla Kiely wallet marked down at a store location closing in my neighborhood. I’d always wanted one like it. It was 10 percent off, and I knew I could probably talk the owner down further — but I chickened out. I was afraid to ask, for fear of getting rejected. I decided to wait a day, but when I went back, it was gone. (Don’t think it was lost on me that I was afraid of negotiating over a wallet.)

A few days later, after kicking myself about that, I found a very similar one on eBay, a company built on negotiated transactions. And, because I never got caught up in the eBay countdowns and nail-biting, I normally buy things at whatever the list price is. Except this time. The seller’s asking price was $60 (normally that wallet would run about $120). Already a good deal, but what if I could do better? I offered $55. And got it.

Total savings: $5 (or more, when you consider it was brand new and would normally be twice the asking price)
Ease: 10
Worth it: 10

Making A Deal Over Coffee
I grabbed not one, but two bags of coffee at Irving Farm and got in line. (This is a flaw of mine, I discovered — when I’m going in with a spirit of negotiation, I tend to overcommit.) I broke a sweat, realizing I was going to attempt to negotiate in front of a line of people who had not had their coffee yet.

I made it as quick and painless as I could, “Um, so, I’ll take the Farmhouse Roast decaf and Molasses Espresso, ground for French press…and, um, are you guys flexible at all on the price?”

The barista explained to me the basic premise of cash registers: “I ring it up and whatever the list price is, is what I have to charge.” Okay, I said, and then fumbled for my coffee card to get stamped — and was denied. “Sorry, can’t use those for bags, just beverages.”

Double fail.

Total savings: 0
Ease: 0
Worth it: 0 (Mortified.)

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Working Myself Into A Lather For Shampoo
I was in the market for shampoo and had been wanting to try Kerastase, which my stylist had been raving about. So, I stopped into Ricky's on Broadway, a chain store with a reputation for being, well, how do I put this — a little sleazy. They’ve got a great selection of hair products. They also happen to sell adult toys in the back and once a year turn the entire place into a Halloween pop-up store. I just got the sense that maybe, just maybe, there’d be some wiggle room.

I knew I had to find someone to connect with and make him care. And, I found him — an exuberant, friendly man in his mid-twenties who looked starved for human interaction. So, I warmed up the situation by turning on the charm. Not flirting, mind you, but with some self-deprecating repartee about how I couldn’t understand the label on the Kerastase bottle and was offended that they assumed because my hair was fine it was also damaged (he laughed at that).

I knew that he either could or couldn’t alter the price of an item, but that if he could, he had to be inclined to. So, I needed to make him feel he was in a position to help me. This I know to be true because I’ve used it in many other situations — let someone help, and they’re yours.

The shampoo I decided on happened to be $37. Gulp. “Tell me,” I said carefully, “how flexible are you on the cost of the products. Or are you not at all?” I added. I wanted him to feel he had the option.

“The best I can do is 5 percent off,” he said, looking at me as if to say, “Is that okay?”

“That’s terrific! Thank you!” I said. I was pleased and grateful; he felt good. The end.

Savings: $1.85
Ease: 9
Worth it: 2 (Not for the money, but because it made me feel good and renewed my faith in the negotiation process.)

Grocery Shopping
I went in to Fairway for some groceries. Let me sum this one up very simply: No one at Fairway is looking to make a deal with you. Fair Trade chocolate, sardines, and toilet paper cost what they cost. It’s a non-negotiable situation.

Total savings: 0
Ease: 0
Worth it: 0

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Negotiating With Goliath
I don’t like to call Time Warner Cable and do so only under duress. Except, this time would be different. Why? Because I had decided I could get by without cable for awhile. In other words, I was willing to walk away.

When I got the customer service rep on the line and told him as much, the game changed. He bent over backwards to customize a plan for me. It was on him to prove to me that it was worth keeping TV, and to make it worth my while.

I won’t bore you with the numbers, but essentially he cut my bill by about $30 per month, and threw in Showtime to sweeten the pot. This underscored a powerful lesson — the one who is willing to walk away wins.

Total savings: $30+
Ease: 9
Worth it: 10

The Takeaway
I learned a few lessons throughout my experiment. Here are my top three.

1. It’s not worth it to “negotiate” the price on most store-bought goods, especially when you’re dealing with a corporate entity like Fairway or even a coffee shop. The people you deal with are not in a position to make deals for the most part, nor are they incentivized to do so. You have no leverage, so you get nowhere fast.

2. Consider the balance of stress vs. reward. Some people like to use negotiation every time they buy something as an opportunity to save. Not me. It amounts to little more than haggling, which I hate. The stress isn’t worth the few bucks you save.

3. Save your negotiating skills for situations in which both parties have skin in the game. The process is far more rewarding and fulfilling when you can think creatively and find ways to make something work, which is why it’s worth it on the big ticket items — a job, a promotion, a home. You’ll be far better served when you can draw on the full range of all you have to offer and be open-minded about what can work for you. That’s negotiation at its best.