Price Tags Are Merely Suggestions

Karl Wiegers
Sep 9 · 5 min read
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When you see the price tag on an item in a store or in a services contract, don’t take it too literally. Prices that appear to be cast in concrete often have some flexibility. I’ve learned that almost everything is negotiable.

Long ago a friend taught me the magic words. She frequented garage sales and antique stores to flesh out her collection of Chinese cloisonné vases. She found that if you politely ask, “Can I do any better on the price?” you will often spend less than the vendor asked. That strategy works surprisingly often with an amazing range of products and services.

When I bought a pair of shoes at a mall store, I smiled and asked, “Can I do any better on the price?” The salesman said they did have a coupon for $25 off any purchase over $150. He didn’t spontaneously mention the coupon; I had to ask. So I bought a small item to push the total price above $150 and got my $25 discount coupon. When I bought another pair of shoes at the same store later, I asked if they had any coupon deals or other specials. No, they didn’t, but the salesman told me to pick out any pair of socks I wanted for free.

Dickering on price is customary at antique shops, yard sales, and flea markets. If you go to a video store and buy a big-screen TV, audio system, and Blu-ray player, you should be able to negotiate a hefty bundle discount. And no one should pay list price for a car. Organizations like Consumer Reports make it easier to negotiate with reports that list the dealer invoice cost of vehicles and options. This data lets you negotiate up from a cost position, rather than down from a list-price position. I applied this strategy the last time I bought a car and got a good deal.

I bought a nice jacket in a clothing store in chilly San Francisco one time. The store had a big sale going on. Although the jacket wasn’t marked as being part of the sale, I asked the salesman if the sale price applied. “Sure, I can do that,” he said. Then he told me that they were having another sale later that week, so he could give me an even better price on the jacket. I wound up paying less than half price, just by asking.

There are various negotiating tricks you can try. Look for a reason that the merchant might be willing to give you a lower price. Maybe you’ve bought from them before, or you’re willing to take a demo product instead of a brand-new one in the box. Tell the seller you’d prefer to buy an item from them right there, right then instead of going home and ordering the product from an online source.

In-store prices for chain stores sometimes are higher than their online prices, but most stores will match the online price if you ask. Some stores will let you use a competitor’s discount coupon. It never hurts to ask. I’ve also gotten the habit of searching for discount codes for purchases from online vendors. They don’t all work, but sometimes I save several dollars.

When my yard needed some work, a landscaping company I had used several times before, quoted a price of $850. I asked if they could do the job for $800, please. They replied that since I was a repeat customer, yes, they could take $800. Just this week an arborist quoted $1300 to trim some large trees, but he accepted my offer of $1200 with no hassle.

You don’t win every negotiation. I’ve sometimes used another landscaping company that charges a lot more than the one I mentioned above. They do often do a better job, but they’re completely inflexible on pricing, even at times when I know they’re hurting for business. That’s okay. I can use the other landscapers who do a good-enough job at a significantly lower cost. I’m willing to pay extra for quality, but only when it makes a real difference.

Once I was in a sporting goods store looking for new running shoes. A knowledgeable young salesman helped me pick out a pair that seemed fine for my not-so-ordinary feet. Running shoes: $84.99. Support insoles: $19.99. Getting 20 percent off just by asking: priceless (actually, $21.00).

Sometimes you can save on a major purchase by offering to pay in cash rather than with a credit card, because the merchant has to pay a fee of 2 or 3 percent on each credit card transaction. Debit card payments cost the merchant less than credit cards, so you might get a modest discount if you pay by debit card. Be aware, though: credit card purchases offer certain consumer protections that cash or debit card payments do not.

Even my dentist takes 5 percent off if I pay by check instead of charging it. Some medical offices, like my optometrist, will provide a discount if they don’t have to hassle with insurance paperwork, so if you are self-paying for medical care, be sure to ask.

Whenever you’re negotiating, do it respectfully and work toward a win-win outcome. No one should feel as though they’re being exploited. The classic book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton stresses to keep the interests of all parties in mind instead of simply staking out a position and defending it to the death. This premise applies whether you’re negotiating a price at a store, discussing commitments at work with your manager, or trying to work out a problem with a neighbor.

As I’ve gotten older, I’m not at all shy about asking about senior discounts. Many chain restaurants offer discounts to people typically over age 55 or members of AARP. A partial list is available at My greatest coup came two years ago when I needed to have my entire house resided, an expensive job. I asked about a senior discount, not expecting one because I was working with a local company. To my delight, the salesman took more than $6000 off the quoted price. That was certainly worth the conversation.

It’s been an eye-opener for me to realize how frequently I can do better in a transaction simply by asking. I’ve saved money through negotiation on a set of car tires, a maintenance contract for my home’s heating systems, several magazine subscription renewals (ask if you can get the same rate offered to new subscribers), and renewing my cable TV, Internet, and phone service. It doesn’t work every time, but it works more often than you might expect. And no one has ever refused to sell me a product or service just because I asked if I could do any better on the price.

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