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Dickering Around

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Cash Register

Are you kidding me? I now have to haggle at Best Buy?

Well, according to this New York Times story, if I want to get the best deal at stores like Best Buy, Circuit City, Home Depot, or even the Polo Ralph Lauren store, I have to be prepared to negotiate:

Savvy consumers, empowered by the Internet and encouraged by a slowing economy, are finding that they can dicker on prices, not just on clearance items or big-ticket products like televisions but also on lower-cost goods like cameras, audio speakers, couches, rugs and even clothing.

The problem is that I just won’t—probably can’t—do this. For one thing, I’m shy, and I don’t especially enjoy striking up conversations with strangers, particularly those with ulterior (profit) motives. This is why going to a store like Circuit City is painful for me, anyway. I know that as soon as I start browsing the big flat screen TVs or the laser printers, some officious salesman is going to be at my side. Our interaction, if you want to be charitable and call it that, will amount to something like this: I’ll avoid eye contact, hoping for just a few minutes to scope out the merchandise; the salesman, overly willing to avoid the social cues I’m (not!) sending out, will ask if I “need any help”; and I’ll end up demurring and scurrying off to another aisle. Pretty, huh?

To avoid this kind of scenario, I just don’t drop by car showrooms or jewelry stores. I know I’m never going to get the best deal there, and I don’t even try. In fact, one of the reasons I’ve always preferred Best Buy to Circuit City is that Best Buy usually lets its shoppers be. I thought the entire idea was that all shoppers, including me, were getting the good deal. That’s apparently not true anymore:

Frederick Stinchfield, 23, was a Best Buy salesman in Minnetonka, Minn., until last January. He said about one-quarter of customers tried to bargain. Much of the time, he said, he was able to oblige them, particularly in circumstances where a customer buying electronics (like a camera) also bought an accessory (like a camera bag) with a higher markup. He said the cash registers at Best Buy were set up so that prices could be reset at checkout.

Hell.

Silly me, but I actually thought one of the advantages of modern civilization was that we’d moved away from an economy that was explicitly dependent on who you are, how you look, or how well you negotiate. And according to the Times, until recently, I would’ve been right:

Haggling was once common before department stores began setting fixed prices in the 1850s. But the shift to bargaining in malls and on Main Street is a considerable change from even 10 years ago, [Nancy F.] Koehn [a retail historian] said, when studies showed that consumers did not like to bargain and did not consider themselves good at it. “Call it the eBay phenomenon,” Ms. Koehn said.

eBay‘s to blame? No way. That just doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, I’m happy to bid in an online auction, but that’s not actually haggling. It’s antiseptic—and in the best possible sense. I don’t have to make pretend-friends with the seller or worry that I’m not getting a good deal even when I manage to get 10% knocked off the ticket price. Dickering at Best Buy with a real salesman isn’t anything like bidding pseudonymously on eBay. Online auctions reward the introverted buyer—who’s moving the action without having to suffer the social costs of interacting with the seller. Haggling at Best Buy punishes consumers like me.

Anyway, where will this trend leave the “savvy consumer”? If I pay the asking price for the digital camera I’ve been eyeing, even if it’s the “sale price,” am I getting fleeced? When the Diet Dr. Pepper doesn’t happen to be on sale at my supermarket, should I offer the cashier $1 less for the fridge pack? Should I threaten the Polo salesman that I’ve seen nicer pants down the street?

Who has time or patience for this? Not me. And if the New Haggling Culture catches on, we’ll all literally be the poorer for it. When you buy a new car today, you have to be prepared to spend days and hours with the salesman, watching as he plays games, negotiating ridiculous service fees and hidden costs. And even if you do all that, there’s still a pretty good chance that you haven’t gotten a good deal, let alone the best deal. Do we really want to take the car-shopping model and extend it?

If I have to haggle for something, I don’t want it.

Written by Jimmy

March 23rd, 2008 at 10:11 pm

Posted in General Interest

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