Haggling for my supper

Looking for ways to save on food? Haggling isn’t one of them.

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My introduction to haggling occurred about ten years ago in a stifling market in Bangkok’s Koh San road. I needed a pair of “farmer’s pants” (the baggy cotton jobs so fashionable amongst travelers) and — as with any transaction in Thailand—a few minutes of negotiation would be required.

“Five hundred baht,” said the vendor, barely looking up from her mango salad. “Good price for you, cheap.”

After more than a month on the road, I had successfully avoided haggling, leaving my girlfriend to handle our purchases. She enjoyed shopping and reveled in the interaction with the locals. I, on the other hand, would rather pull my own toenails out than talk some shyster down from her wildly inflated price based on the colour of my skin.

But that day, the hand-holding stopped.

“You’re buying your own pants today,” my girlfriend told me. “Hang in there and you’ll get a good price.”

So there I was, face to face in the mid-day heat with a canny street vendor who could smell my lack of negotiation skills like a dog smells fear. Knowing that my target price was 60% of her first offer, I thought I’d skip a few minutes of back and forth and get right down to brass tacks.

“I’ll give you three hundred,” I said.

Behind me, my girlfriend sighed. “You are so bad at this,” she said, walking away in disgust.

Fast forward to today, where for some reason I’ve agreed to take part in an experiment in which I’ll attempt to haggle for everything I buy for a month. Were I still in Thailand, this would be a cinch. But since we Canadians are (sadly) averse to pushing for a better price, I’m expecting an uphill battle.

So far, it has not been easy. I typically shop for groceries at a neighbourhood discount store, and I knew that the front of a long checkout line was not the place to start demanding a better price. So I waited for a quiet period where I wouldn’t be causing a disturbance to see what kind of deal I could get.

As expected, the cashier had no authority to lower prices and called the manager over. He patiently listened as I made my pitch for a 10% discount, and told me that in the interest of fairness, all prices in the store are final. “I can’t give you a discount and then charge the guy behind you full price,” he said. “I’d have a riot on my hands.”

An independent shop down the street was my next target. I got a warmer reception there, which I figure is partly due to the fact that I’m a familiar face and that I make an effort to speak a little Mandarin with the Chinese owners. I managed to score 10% off some fruit that was a day or two over the hill, saving me around $1.50. Not exactly a windfall, nor is it worth the trouble, in my opinion.

Our negotiation-free consumer culture aside, I’m convinced that the margins on food are simply not large enough to leave room for haggling. I’m sure one could find a deli here and a green grocer there that is willing to knock a few points off the price, but bringing down the cost of an entire bagful of groceries is a tall order.

I’m in need of some summer clothes, so we’ll see what kind of deals can be struck in that department over the weekend.

4 comments on “Haggling for my supper

  1. The only way I have been able to haggle in Canada for groceries is on meats that is a couple days away from it's best before date or veggies on the rack that is discounted. You just say to the manager on the floor, can you mark this down a bit more because it is looking really sad and you will have to throw it out tonight anyway. You are right haggling is very un-Canadian. We don't even like to haggle at garage sales.

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  2. I don't call it "haggling" – it's just negotiating. Although there are places it's difficult to do so (like grocery stores) there are lots of places that a willingness to negotiate will get you a better deal.

    I suggest this book: http://amzn.com/0553281097

    I've used Herb Cohen's book as a starting point and it's paid huge dividends for me over the years.

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  3. I think that anything can be negotiated, anywhere, if you have an angle. I recently went to a high-end bagel shop in the north end of Toronto, and noticed a stack of sugar-free halava packages – a staple of my low carb diet. I went there to buy one, but noticed one of the owners there and I asked him if I bought six if he would give them to me for the price of five. In a second he agreed (after giving me a sort of a crazy look!). At that second I realized I could've asked for a steeper discount!

    Ask – the worst they can do is say "no." If you really want to make a stand, be prepared to walk out and go directly to a competitor.

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  4. Any way to save money and make your budget happy would seem to be well worth it. But when we actually say we save money on that particular purchase are we really? Unless it goes into a savings account, the answer is no. We would just have more money for another purchase. I don't negotiate much, so it's a skill that would be good for me to learn. Like you, I'd rather someone else use their negotiation or haggling skills!

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