Editorial: The Price Is Right; Shoppers Seek a Grand Bargain

There are only four days to go before Christmas, so why not make the most of your holiday shopping experience and bargain with the clerks? According to The New York Times, many merchandisers are more open to price negotiation than you might suppose, and some have even trained workers to deal with haggling consumers. Best Buy, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Barnes & Noble are among the big-name stores that have been known to match a competitor’s price or discount goods upon request, though not all advertise their willingness to do so.

Welcome to the flat, digital world of retail, where customers with smartphones are always right: Price-tracking apps allow shoppers to access cost data about goods sold all around the country, even the world, turning just about everyone into savvy comparison shoppers. Retail stores that want to remain competitive are learning to play their own versions of Let’s Make a Deal. Some 20 percent of big-box stores have price-matching policies, and managers at some are allowed to go 10 percent below a competitor’s price, the Times reported.

Everyone likes a bargain, of course, but will the malls and Main Streets of America turn into Turkish bazaars, where only the most pushy consumers succeed with the most motivated merchandisers, leaving the rest of us dazed and confused at the souk?

“I truly feel that the shopping landscape is going to change,” said Joe Marrapodi, a Web entrepreneur. “It’s going to be much more driven by the consumer and ability to negotiate.”

Marrapodi has developed a “name-your-own-price” website, Greentoe.com, which lets consumers submit individual offers on merchandise. If the price is deemed reasonable, it’s sent to a network of retailers that have the option of accepting it. Sounds like a combination of eBay and Priceline to us, but then we are old-school shoppers who still read price tags.

Which brings us to the psychology of bargaining. Those interviewed by the Times suggest that consumers who initiate price negotiations should never take an adversarial or aggressive stance. Politeness apparently helps, as does confident knowledge about what the competition has to offer. But don’t remain too calm. In fact, a little physical exertion might be in order. A recent MIT study demonstrated that people are better negotiators when their heart rate goes up and their palms sweat. Insouciance isn’t likely to result in 10 percent off the retail price.

Of course, taken to its logical conclusion, bargaining could mean the end of bargains. After all, a bargain is a relative concept. Shoppers will happily pay $20 for something that costs $40 but won’t necessarily pay $20 for something that actually costs $20 or less. If pricing becomes wildly elastic because everyone is haggling, no one will truly understand the cost of anything. And anyway, negotiating for discounts gets old. Anyone who’s haggled for a souvenir at a real Turkish bazaar knows that no matter what you paid, you come home thinking you probably paid too much.