Smart Consumer: Confessions of a haggler

The very idea of bargaining sends some shoppers into a cold sweat -- but there are savings to be made if you know how, writes John Cradden

For the average Irish consumer, haggling is still a bit of a dirty word. Many of us are reluctant to roll up our sleeves and give it a go.

It's more associated with the kind of price negotiating you might do with sellers at a Moroccan souk, not with sales assistants at M&S.

It's a similar story over in the UK. Research by Invisible Hand, an online shopping company, suggests that three quarters of consumers are too shy to haggle for a better deal, and this is costing them an average of £220 (€258) a year.

While no similar studies have been undertaken here, consumer experts readily point to our timidity when it comes to negotiating over price.

"The majority of us do not know how to haggle and even if they did, would prefer not to as they are too embarrassed, shy, nervous or afraid," says Dermott Jewell, chief executive of the Consumers Association of Ireland. "The remainder see it as either pointless or unseemly."

1 Well, I hate the idea of haggling too. Even the idea brings me out in a cold sweat. Should I be trying to get over it?

While keen to encourage haggling in general, the National Consumer Agency (NCA) suggests that first-time hagglers should check out local markets and second-hand shops.

But rather than haggle with someone face to face, an even easier approach for a first-time haggler might be through online shopping, for which practically all communication is by email anyway.

John Madden from Dublin emailed a hotel in Cork he had stayed in before to ask if it could match a special offer price he had been given before, and added that he would like to stay there again but a nearby hotel was cheaper.

"I got about 25% off," he said. "It's easier to ask [by email] and you can edit it down to a well-reasoned argument before you send. Politeness is the key, either way."

2 Hotels do seem to be more open to negotiation than before, given the economy. But what about other sectors?

You could try negotiating on things like major dental treatment or work on your house, or services such as gyms, crèches and garages, says the NCA.

"There is often some room for manoeuvre on price when you are paying for someone's expertise rather than for a physical item, especially where you have competing offers to choose between," said a spokesman.

You may have more luck in general with haggling on high-value items, such as furniture, cars, electrical goods.

"There is often some in-built wriggle room for salespeople on these items," he said.

Also, if you buy multiple items or bulk purchases, such as home heating oil, coal or electrical goods, you can try asking for a discount.

3 Are there certain firms more open to negotiating on price than others?

Research by UK personal finance site Moneysavingexpert.com revealed that almost 80% of Sky TV, broadband or home phone customers who tried to barter down costs secured a better deal, while 73% of AA customers who had haggled said they ended up with a cheaper deal on their breakdown cover.

It's not clear if Sky Ireland and AA Ireland would show a similar willingness to bargain with consumers, but there is certainly no harm in trying.

Mind you, be prepared for some shops giving you the short thrift. "When people casually insult me by trying to haggle, I tend to respond irately," says the proprietor of a small, independent bookshop, Raven Books, via Twitter.

4 At what places would haggling be unlikely to work?

You're unlikely to get a discount just by asking in a supermarket, petrol station, restaurant, hairdresser or other similar shops because their "prices are either determined by law and the need to display them or simply that negotiation is impossible due to the structure of the business", said Jewell.

"Information is power, however, and if you can approach a seller and knowingly tell them that you can do better by going elsewhere, then they have the choice to better that price or suggest you go to that other business."What have you lost? Nothing. What will they lose? A sale, and income," he said.

5 What sort of information will give me that power?

Finding out a variety of prices online has never been easier through price comparison websites such as Bonkers.ie, Compare.ie, Toprice.ie and Economiser.ie.

There are loads of search engines for hotels and accommodation too.

"Haggle or at the very least shop around and use competing offers to negotiate on renewals, especially for home and motor insurance and so on," said the NCA spokesman.

You should also look out for companies that offer "price beaters".

Retailers such as Harvey Norman, Windsor Motors, DID Electrical and Currys all state on their websites that if you find a similar item or service elsewhere for cheaper, it will match that price and, in some cases, offer to refund the price difference.

6 Any other tips?

Jewell says it is worth asking what discount you might be offered if you pay by cash or debit card instead of your credit card, because this limits the retailer's charges and they might be willing to share some of that gain via a price reduction.

"This is a softer form of haggling because you know you are only asking for a fair deal in how you pay."

If you think you might become a regular customer, you could ask for a deal on the price or any additional benefits, says the NCA. Some companies offer a 10% discount off the next item you buy from them.

"Many companies will offer good deals to get repeat business and whilst a price reduction may not always be possible, you might get some additional add-ons or benefits that would be of value to you."

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