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Retailers see bargaining as way to keep customers

Old skill may help beat new online rivals

Marilyn Santiesteban of Newton (left) bargained for a pair of boots at Macy’s that she gave to her daughter, Alexa Portney.
Marilyn Santiesteban of Newton (left) bargained for a pair of boots at Macy’s that she gave to her daughter, Alexa Portney.Gretchen Ertl/The New York Times

Pay no attention to the price on that tag.

Or even the markdown.

This year, some shoppers are quietly taking the art of bargaining up the escalator to the floors selling cashmere or over-the-knee leather boots, building on the haggling skills they acquired in the past few years getting big-box store deals on TVs and the like.

Armed with increasingly sophisticated price-tracking tools on their smartphones and other devices, consumers have become bolder, and they know that they often have the upper hand during a tough season for retailers. Recognizing the new reality, some retailers, desperate for sales and customer loyalty, have begun training their employees in the art of bargaining with customers.


Last month, Best Buy essentially invited consumers to bargain when it announced that it would match the prices of any competitor this holiday season if customers showed proof of the lower price.

But other retailers are doing the same with less fanfare, or even making steeper concessions. DealScience, a new website that collects, compares, and ranks online deals from thousands of retail brands, discovered that at least 20 percent of big box retailers had price-matching policies, though many do not advertise them.

The site's cofounders, Brandon Hunt and Cory O'Daniel, said they had been surprised to find that at least a half-dozen merchants — including some of the original haggling stages like Best Buy, Home Depot, and Lowe's — now permit managers to go a step better and offer 10 percent below a competitor's price.

The bargaining practices are more commonplace for home and sporting goods or electronics, but even higher-end retailers like Nordstrom have price-matching guidelines — though they usually do not broadcast the terms.

Joe Marrapodi, one of the founders and the chief executive of Greentoe.com, a new name-your-own price website, walked into Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's the other day in Santa Monica, Calif., and without identifying himself or his occupation, casually asked employees if they were open to bargaining. Both the sales representatives and the managers said yes without hesitation, he said, and cited specific price-matching policies.


In a statement, a spokeswoman for Nordstrom said: "For as long as we've been in business we've been committed to offering our customers the best possible prices, including meeting competitor pricing on similar items."

There was nearly universal recognition among guests at a private round-table dinner with retail executives in Dallas that their stores had better accept regular give-and-take with customers, according to Alison Kenny Paul, vice chairwoman and leader of US retail and distribution at Deloitte.

As a result, Paul said, some retailers are training employees on the rules of bargaining. Instead of price discounts, those deals may be add-ons, like an extended warranty, free delivery, or free installation.

Retailers panicked a few years ago when they realized that some consumers were using brick-and-mortar stores to view products, only to walk out and order them at a lower price online. Now, Paul said, they are trying to "turn lemons into lemonade" by using that model as an opportunity to work with customers and even cement their loyalty.

Marilyn Santiesteban of Newton rarely makes a purchase without first asking a manager for a better deal, and as a result, she has won significant discounts on things as diverse as a dishwasher at Sears and boots for her daughter at Macy's.


The other day, she said, she went shopping at a Barnes & Noble outside Boston for a book-with-toy set for her 7-year-old nephew. Her smartphone told her she could get the item for about $6 less at Amazon. She pointed this out politely to the store manager, and he instantly matched the price.

"You think I'm not going to buy everything from Barnes & Noble now?" she said.

Bargaining "is not adversarial," she said, explaining that she considers it a service to tell a store she can get a better price elsewhere.

"We would both like it if I would walk out of this store having purchased an item."

There are several unwritten rules about negotiating with a retailer.

It has to be "consumer initiated," said Virginia Morris, vice president for consumer strategy and insights at Daymon Worldwide, a consulting firm. She said the customer must ask for a deal. Do not, she said, expect the retailer to offer it.

It has to be a reasonable offer, made politely — either a request to match a price or to offer a slim discount.

"The key is to be polite and confident," said Kyle James of Redding, Calif., who writes a blog about personal finance and frugal living.