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Let's make a deal

Intent on saving wherever they can, shoppers are looking for discounts -- and, increasingly, asking for them

By Beth Teitell
Globe Correspondent / April 2, 2009

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By now, Aljay Icalla has seen the routine so often that he can tell a customer is poised to haggle simply by observing body language. "They kind of squint a little when you tell them the price," the salesman said as he manned the Cross kiosk in the Shops at the Prudential Center recently. He cocked his head and mimicked a shopper moving in for the kill: "Is that the best you can do for me?"

What? People are bartering at the Pru, as though it's some kind of bazaar? Yes, and in tony boutiques, too, and at the dry cleaners, and - has the world as we know it disappeared completely? - even at the doctor's office.

"People act like they just got off the cruise ship in Cancun," said Karen Fabbri, owner of the Moxie boutique on Charles Street, who has jousted with customers trying to score discounts on items that are already 70 percent off. "The etiquette of shopping has gone out the window."

Way out the window. A nation that once considered the price on a tag - well, the price - now sees that number as a mere starting point. Even as consumers profess pity for stores they're trying to negotiate profit-busting deals.

Michelle Lamotte, 29, a nanny from Hyde Park, saw a nice blue long-sleeved tissue T-shirt at Express, but she considered the $49.50 price "crazy" and promptly shared her opinion with the manager. "I said, 'This is a ridiculous price.' " Rather than take offense, the manager accommodated her. "If you buy it now," Lamotte says she was told, "we'll give you an extra 15 percent off."

Nice, but perhaps she could have held out for an even better deal. The National Retail Federation insists that the national chain stores don't negotiate. But consumer reports of successful bargaining at big box stores, as well as a survey by America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C., market research firm, tell a different story.

Consumers knocked off an average of 20 percent by negotiating, says C. Britt Beemer, CEO of ARG. The survey, taken in December, reported that 72 percent of customers bargained in stores - up from 56 percent in December 2007. Even more noteworthy, shoppers reported success 80 percent of time, up from 50 percent in 2007.

Beemer is surprised the haggle rate is so high - only about one-third of consumers are "comfortable" bargaining, he says - "but when you're struggling financially, you do things outside your comfort zone."

That's the situation Dominic Desiata, 26, an unemployed electrician from East Boston, finds himself in. With food and rent money tight, and a 3-month-old son to care for, he recently asked for and got $10 off socks and Adidas at a neighborhood store.

"I worry that people are going to think, 'Who's this loser, trying to get something for free?' " Desiata said, "but ultimately it's going to help me out, so I try to do it."

Forget "buyer beware." These days, it's the sellers who have to be on guard for shoppers who've come to feel a sale or discount is their recession-given right.

"Oh my gosh, it happens all the time," says Tori Fyfe, a customer assistant at Best Buy in Back Bay. "Sometimes they're nice about it, but when you say 'no' some people get really adamant." Even when she knows the price can't be lowered, Fyfe confided, she asks a manager. "So [customers] think I'm not out to get them."

In some cases, not just any reduction will do, as Arthur Anton Jr., chief operating officer of Anton's Cleaners, has learned. He's gotten complaining e-mails from customers who want discounts for cleaning a wider array of garments than he's offering.

"They make a little bit of a threat they'll go somewhere else," Anton said, "but you've got to make smart business decisions. You can't discount shirts if that's 50 percent of your pieces."

Some consumers have become so empowered they're even trying to get physicians to knock a little off the price for elective procedures not covered by insurance, albeit subtly.

"People are too embarrassed to say 'Give me a deal," says Leonard Miller, a Boston plastic surgeon. "They tell you their budget is 'limited.' They hint around."

So, how did the country turn into a giant flea market?

Nancy F. Koehn, a historian and professor at Harvard Business School, says a combination of factors have led to the new bargaining culture, which marks a return to the way business was conducted before the growth of mass retailing in the late 19th century.

"If you and I lived in 1865, at the end of the Civil War, we'd talk to the merchant at the general store and might dicker a little bit," Koehn said. "Or if we lived in Chicago we might go into a haberdashery and have a conversation about the price of that bonnet."

But the expansion of department stores and the railroad system led to standardization. "Having a discussion on price goes the way of the hackney carriage once the auto is here," Koehn said. For the next 100 years, bargaining existed, but mainly in car showrooms, jewelry stores, and antiques shops.

More recently, the Internet reintroduced the concept of bargaining and of consumers deciding how much they're willing to spend on an item, Koehn said.

"In terms of common practice, we really don't see too much of it until the advent of eBay," she said. "That's the most important thing that happened to consumer haggling. What eBay says is that prices are flexible." And, she added, the pricing transparency created by the Internet "opened consumers' minds and hearts to haggling." She paused for a moment. "Then, enter stage left, a big, rapid recession."

All those factors led to the emergence of power shoppers like Renee Appelle, 28, whose mantra has become: "It never hurts to ask."

"Everyone's in the situation where they want to move inventory," Appelle said as she strolled Newbury Street. In town on business, she didn't have time to bargain in boutiques, but the trip offered an opportunity to make one deal - with her hotel.

"I got my room [at the Westin Copley Place] for $35 less than they were offering," she said.

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