How to haggle and nab a bargain without regret

Haggling is not just for the markets or overseas, but for the shopping malls too.

When I was eight or nine years old, I set up an unauthorised stall at the local market to sell my old stuff for some extra pocket money.

It was basically a few bits and bobs arranged on a towel spread on the ground. My mum let me do it, gauging correctly that I was either too cute or my stall too inconsequential for the market managers to boot me out.

One of the items for sale was an alarm clock with a 3D scene of a farmyard on the clock face, including a chicken that pecked the ground to mark the seconds.

I'd picked it out in Target only a few months before and thought it was great, but the tick-tock and alarm were so loud it annoyed the rest of the household, so Mum asked me to sell it. She had originally paid $13 for the clock and she suggested I try to sell it for $4.

After a while, a lady about the age of my grandma approached me.

"How much is this clock?" she asked.

$4" I replied confidently.

"Will you take $3?" she asked.

"OK," I said happily.

"Will you take $2?" she asked.

"OK," I replied, not fazed.

When I told Mum about it later, she was horrified. Her first reaction was to question why I'd sold it for so little, before realising that she'd never actually taught me anything about haggling.

Then she had a few grumbles about the ethics of an adult prepared to drive such a hard bargain with a child. She thought it was mean.

I felt a bit like Jack of Beanstalk fame after he swapped the family cow for some mouldy old beans, except without the magic.

My next encounter with haggling wasn't until I travelled, first on a school trip to Russia when I was 15 and then backpacking in Asia in my early 20s.

It became a game, with the whole charade of the stallholder starting high and me starting low. I'd read all the usual advice about tactics; to feign nonchalance or pretend to walk away, and above all to keep smiling.

It was fun.

Yet I'm now ashamed about the many occasions I haggled vigorously over the equivalent of about 50c.

I feel particularly guilty about the time I bought two beautiful hand-embroidered cushion covers from a hill tribeswoman near Luang Prabang in Laos.

I felt like a winner after the thrill of the chase, but she wasn't smiling when she eventually agreed to sell them for about $3.

With the benefit of more life experience and empathy, I realise now that haggling doesn't have to be zero-sum.

A former colleague who grew up with haggling culture in his Chinese-Australian family says he was taught to always leave something on the table, so it's economically sustainable and the vendor also feels they accomplished something with the sale.

He's also taught me that haggling is not just for the markets or overseas, but for the Aussie shopping mall too.

As far as he's concerned, only a fool would pay sticker price in JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman, for example.

We're not just talking about a polite 10% discount. A few months ago he negotiated the price of a giant, curved Samsung monitor from $1497 to $1100.

He found out it was possible to buy it online for that price, but there was a long wait for shipping and question marks over whether the warranty would fall under Australian consumer law.

He used that information to successfully negotiate in Harvey Norman.

His usual tactic is to get the best offer from Harvey Norman and then take that to JB Hi-Fi and get them to beat it, or vice versa.

Sometimes it works for him to make a counter-offer of what it would take to get him to buy it on the spot, without comparison-shopping at the competitor.

Sometimes the manager will complain they're selling at a loss, but my colleague is savvy enough to know it's not just a margin game because in the electronics industry the retailer is compensated on volume too.

Steve Kulmar, a senior strategist at consultancy Retail Oasis, confirms big electronic stores generally have volume pricing agreements, as well as payments from manufacturers to support the store's marketing activities, plus incentives for the specific salesperson.

Kulmar says haggling is becoming more common in Australian retail culture and the best tactic is comparison shopping so you know your base price. He adds there's more leeway with higher priced items such as consumer electronics and white goods.

Or you could head to the market and look for a dopey eight-year-old.

This article was originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 July 2016. It represents the views of the author only and does not necessarily reflect the views of AMP.

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