Everything is Negotiable: 4 Simple Strategies for Getting Awesome Deals

A couple negotiate the price of strawberries at a summer market.
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We’ve talked before about how you can negotiate for everything, but in practice, it’s often challenging to ask for a discount on an established price. I decided to test this theory: could I get a discount in a bookstore, where all books have a set cover price?

The short answer: yes. I negotiated 40% off a new book! Here’s how I was able to get this deal, and how you can put the same strategies to work to negotiate your way to big savings.

Can You Negotiate in a Bookstore? A Case Study

While visiting a bookstore with friends, I noticed a book I wanted — but I didn’t want to pay the cover price of $9.95. Because I had recently been reading books on negotiation, including Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury and Bruce Patton, I decided it was time to put some of the techniques I had learned to the test.

I verified that the woman at the register was actually the owner of the store as I suspected, and I let my friends continue to shop while I quietly took the book over to her. I said I was thinking of getting a similar book from the library, which was true, but that I would buy this one if she sold it to me for $6.00 — roughly a 40% discount. She politely declined my offer.

I returned the book to its shelf and joined my friends. A minute later the owner motioned for me to come over to the register. She had the book on the counter and said she would take $6.00 for it, “as long as you don’t tell anybody.” Many years have passed since then, and the store is now closed, so I feel I’m released from my promise.

Let’s look at some of the reasons this strategy worked, and how you can replicate it for your own purchases.

Determine the Seller’s Cost

Learning (or guessing) the seller’s cost is part of the larger strategy of gathering information before starting the negotiation. I already knew that bookstores typically buy books at 50% of the cover price, so I knew the owner would still make a little bit of money on the book at $6.00, since she had probably paid $5.00 for it. The goal isn’t to cheat the seller or keep them from making any money; it’s to find a price that works for you both.

Estimating wholesale cost is easier now that there are so many free online tools. If you’re buying a new car for example, check a site like TrueCar.com and you’ll get not just the misleading invoice price, but a realistic idea of what the dealer actually paid for the car. If the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) is $27,500 but you know that the real cost to the dealer is around $23,500, you can offer $24,000 with a straight face. Maybe you’ll get a yes, or at least a discount you wouldn’t have received without this information. (Like this idea? Click to tweet it!)

Let the Other Side Look Good

Notice that I wasn’t showing off my negotiating skills to my friends. I quietly made my offer, and thanked the owner. I left her feeling okay about the deal.

Forget the Hollywood idea that it’s cool to humiliate your “opponent” in a negotiation. Instead make the other person feel good.

Suppose you’re trying to get a lower monthly rate for a gym membership. Don’t say, “That’s all I’m going to pay. Take it or leave it!” Instead, try, “If there is any way you can do this for me, I would really appreciate it.” Most people would like to feel they did a good thing for a nice person rather than feel they yielded to a bully’s demands.

Negotiate With the Right Person

The woman at the register was the right person because she was the owner. Nobody in a big chain bookstore is likely to be the right person, because there is probably nobody there with the authority to negotiate.

In other words, finding the right person also means finding the right kind of business. In a family-owned and operated furniture store, someone can make a deal, but if everyone there is just an employee, you’re probably out of luck.

If the owner isn’t there, ask when she is usually in the store or try to get a feel for how much authority has been delegated to the employees. Sometimes a floor manager has the power to reduce a price if there is a slightly damaged item, for example. Always ask, and you never know what the response will be.

Be Ready to Walk Away

I set that book back on its shelf and turned away to join my friends, which made it very clear that I was wasn’t going to buy it at the retail price.

Yes, walking away is hard sometimes, but be prepared to do it — and have alternatives in mind to make it easier. At a flea market a few months ago, my wife and I saw a $70 chair we liked, and we offered $35. The vendor said no and we walked away, knowing there would be other chairs. A minute later, someone chased us down to say that the seller would take $40, so we bought the chair.

Walk away. Sometimes you’ll be called back.

Ok, so these tips work at a bookstore. But they’re equally applicable in…

  • Small bicycle shops
  • Flower shops
  • Owner-operated specialty clothing stores
  • Small grocery stores (ask for a discount on dented cans or items near their sell-by dates)
  • Family-owned stores of all types
  • Big-box stores (negotiate lower prices based on small imperfections)
  • Flea markets (where bargaining is often expected)
  • Appliance stores (ask for a manager if necessary)

You never know until you try, and the results might surprise you. I’ll bet the owner of some small coffee shop would even sell lattes for 40% off if you offered to pay for your next ten cups in advance. Perhaps that’s the next experiment I should try…

Your Turn: Have you ever successfully negotiated a lower price on something that isn’t normally subject to negotiation?