Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Haggling in the First World -- Skill or Sin?

Have you ever picked up an item at a retail store only to put it down because it was more than you were willing to pay? What if you could go up to the check-out stand and offer a lower price for that item, and get it?

A girl in my painting class recently announced that her surplus art supplies were for sale to any interested students. After taking a look, I offered to buy two pads of watercolor paper for a few dollars less than what she was asking. I was surprised to hear her say no, especially because no one else was interested and she sounded like she wanted some quick money. Not only that, she seemed offended, as if I was trying to take advantage of her. Meanwhile I was offended that she wanted me to pay such a high price for second-hand goods, so I didn't buy them.

Also in the past few days, I was eight cents short on a purchase at my local used bookstore. Usually I would ask if what I had was sufficient, but I sensed that the clerk wasn't into making exceptions. Apparently I was correct, because instead of waving it off as many cashiers would have, she sat there stoically while I dug deeper and deeper in my wallet and purse, and even went outside to bum a dime off a passerby. Ironically, I ended up giving her four cents more than the total, and she didn't offer me change! Not that I care about four cents, but it's strange that she was so determined to get her due and yet thought the pennies on my end were irrelevant.

All this has me wondering: why is haggling employed so infrequently in the so-called first world, even to the point of becoming a social transgression? My entire adult life has been full of rainbow gathering trade circles; clothing swaps; yard sales; and free boxes, so I'm used to bargaining for a better deal. Traveling in Guatemala earlier this year certainly encouraged this tendency; the merchants there (and in most of the third world, I imagine) expect you to haggle, so they raise their prices above what they really want.

I'd like to haggle wherever I go. I dream of a world with more flexibility, where commerce involves communication, and therefore meaningful relationships. I understand that sometimes prices are firm because that is what it takes to make ends meet, but even if the other person doesn't want to lower their price, I'd like to know I can make an offer without creating dissonance. There must be ways to do this, even in our culture. For example, I thought about asking that girl in my class if she had been offended and explaining that it was not my intention to give her a bad deal.

How about you? If you're reading this right now, have any similar experiences come to mind? Or maybe you will be inspired to try out haggling now -- if you're willing to take the risk! Please share your stories and tips on how to haggle in the world of firm prices below in the comments section, and check back for others' suggestions. Together we will undermine the 'firm price' economy.... Mwuhahahaha!