By John Daly
It's a sad fact that most men make lousy hagglers. Due to some kind of faulty genetic wiring preventing us sniffing out a good deal, the Irish male prefers to pay the marked price even in situations when there's a good chance of knocking 10 or 15pc off the bottom line.
Haggling doesn't come easy to us, it seems, as we wander the streets, wallet open and eyes closed, missing out on the chance of saving some of our hard-earned fivers and tenners for another day.
"Men need to shed their inhibitions and see haggling as a bit of fun banter rather than a contest," says Pat O'Connell, fishmonger at Cork's English Market and famous as the man who prompted a right royal guffaw from HRH Queen Elizabeth earlier this year.
"Haggling on price is mostly about having a laugh with the shopkeeper," he says. "Some items are already cut to the bone, but it's a poor shopkeeper nowadays who won't reciprocate in some way to a bit of good natured bargaining."
Females are natural hagglers, experts in a skill honed through years balancing the household budget. "Women are used to making the housekeeping euros stretch further, they know how savings here and there add up," Pat says. "They certainly don't have any embarrassment about haggling, they love it."
Could it be that the age of austerity will embolden the Irish male to shed his delicacy about demanding a discount? As a country internationally acknowledged, and envied, for our ease of expression and casual verbosity, surely it's not such a major leap to discover the Arthur Daley lurking within all of us.
In my own case, it happened quite by chance on a recent Saturday in the aforementioned English Market. Commissioned by the other half to pick up a few items, I sallied forth, list in hand, into the great unknown.
First stop was the Heavenly Cake shop and a plethora of pies that added up to €24 -- a fair enough price I'd normally have handed over without protest. But I was a little short of change, so I said, with a smile: "What'll you take for cash?" -- a phrase remembered from my childhood visiting auction rooms with my father.
Sizing me up with that commercial expertise common to all who deal with the public, she returned the smile and said: "How about €20?" Done and dusted -- I was four euros to the good just for posing a five-word question. A barrier had been broken and there was no stopping me now.
Next up was the bread shop and a mix of baguettes, ciabattas and tomato sourdoughs adding up to €17.50. Again with a smile and puppy-dog eyes, I ventured: "Ah, g'wan, you'll take €15?" And she did. On a roll now and really getting into this whole new world of discount dealing, the next hour was spent happily bantering and bargaining like an Eddie Hobbs clone on nitrous oxide at the wine, olives, chicken and cheese stalls.
Result? A saving of €29 that I would previously have handed over without complaint. Arriving home I listed my triumphs like the cat who proudly drops a freshly killed mouse at the feet of his mistress. "Very good," she replied. "I'm sure you'll do even better next time."
While no research on Irish haggling habits has yet been compiled, a recent survey by UK shopping site InvisibleHand revealed three-quarters of British consumers are too shy to hustle for a better price -- with 20pc admitting being too scared to try and 30pc worried about how acceptable it would look.
"Despite the recession, Brits are still too shy and too posh to haggle, and as a result they are losing out and paying far more than they need to," says company founder Robin Landy.
Any Irish shoppers who haven't already begun to haggle may soon come round to this ancient art as the credit crunch tightens even further, according to Dermott Jewell, chief executive of the Consumers Association of Ireland.
"Consumers will start to look at any edge to help them make ends meet and get a bargain," he says. "The difficult economic circumstances out there may force them to shed their embarrassment or shyness about it."
While there is no Irish Hagglers' Association yet in existence, or indeed any rules and regulations governing the practice, an opportunity to provide some form of education on the art is clearly available.
"Haggling is a part of the Irish nature, but many of us -- especially the younger generation who've never experienced hard times -- have forgotten how to do it," says Dermott Jewell. "There's definitely a job initiative around it there for somebody."
In the end, the innate ability of the Irish consumer to adapt to changed circumstances will prove our salvation, says Joe Hegarty, owner of Heavenly Cakes in the English Market.
"We will haggle our way out of this recession, and do whatever else that helps us get a good deal," he believes. "We lost our way for a while with that Celtic Tiger nonsense, but that's all behind us now. Our grandmothers were the best hagglers in Europe in the old days, and it's time we rediscovered that ancient skill once again."
How to haggle. . .
1 LOSE THE FEAR Just as 'faint heart never won fair lady', embarrassment or shyness are inner obstacles you'll have to discard to play this game.
Haggling is a performance. Get into it and enjoy the game with a sense of humour.
2 LEARN THE LINGO A good opening is half the battle. "What's the best you can do on this?" is an easy one, or perhaps the carrot-and-stick approach, "I'm interested but definitely not at this price." Keep it succinct and to the point.
3 INFORMATION IS POWER Do your research -- know what the competition are charging. Consumer sites like Bonkers.ie, Compare.ie, Toprice.ie and Economiser.ie are full of info.
Haggling on services often offers the best possibilities -- garage repairs, dentistry, hotels, gym membership or holiday breaks. Big-ticket items like cars, furniture and building work are other obvious opportunities.
4 PICK YOUR MOMENT Haggling is not a good idea during the height of the sales or the madness of Christmas Eve in Clery's.
Pick a quiet time when salespeople are free -- early morning on a Monday or Tuesday is best. Like most foreplay, haggling works best in one-on-one situations.
5 AIM HIGH, BUT NOT TOO HIGH While the boss is usually easily accessible behind the counter in markets and small shops, you'll need to look a little harder in larger stores. Find someone who's older and more experienced -- assistant managers are often the best deal makers.
6 HAVE FUN Can't stress this enough -- enjoy yourself. Flirt with the shopkeeper as you dance this commercial tango. You have nothing to lose but your uptightness -- and everything to gain for the cost of a smile and some easy banter.