Ever since I can remember, my family has always used fierce negotiating tactics for getting everything from cars to homes to discount tickets. As an Arab-American, I was trained in the cheerful yet aggressive negotiating strategies of my fore-fathers from an early age and have used these techniques every since.
My father was the toughest negotiator around. I remember having three heart attacks when we went shopping for a new car and how he low-balled the car salesman at the Volkswagen dealership. I think the sticker price was about $8000 more than the price he offered, and that’s when I had to leave the room. Even I knew his offer was embarrassingly low and I tried to calm my nerves with a grape soda while they talked. Watching the discussion from outside the office, my palms were twitching, I had a headache and I tried to avert my eyes from the black VW Jetta that I had my heart set on (and that I had a sinking feeling I would lose, thanks to my dad’s ridiculously low offer.) Twice my dad raised his voice, three times he stood up to leave, even making it to the door once before the salesman begged him to sit back down.
Finally I saw him stand up for the last time. He came out of the office in a huff and said, “Yullah Lena (come on).” It was over. The dream of owning my sassy Jetta went down the drain as I followed my dad outside into the parking lot. But wait! As we lumbered over to our car (come to think of it, my dad was walking extremely slowly!), the salesman came scurrying outside and called out for my father to come back inside. My dad resisted, acting like he was offended and the deal was no good. The salesman came over to my dad and persuaded him to come back to the negotiating table–and he did. Fifteen minutes later, they had a deal and I had my new car!
My father’s negotiating skills didn’t apply exclusively to cars: sometimes he used these guerilla tactics to maximize deals and discounts. I recall one year when McDonald’s offered an amazing deal: for one day (February 14th) they were selling hamburgers for 14 cents. My dad, being the thrifty father of four that he was, wanted to take McDonald’s up on this offer–and in a big way. So on February 14, the whole family (including my grandmother and infant brother) piled into the Ford Fairmont and drove over to the local McDonald’s where my dad proceeded to order 100 hamburgers. I was very young at the time but I’m pretty sure a manager had to be called in and then later a phone call was made. My dad stood his ground and after waiting about an hour and a half, we walked out with 100 hamburgers. For weeks after that, McDonald’s hamburgers were our go-to afternoon snack. We had them in the freezer, in the fridge, as a side instead of rice or salad, they even replaced the fruit in the fruit basket. But my lesson was this: it might sounds ridiculous but it never hurts to ask. And stand your ground, especially if it’s a deal worth fighting for.
Over the years, I have learned many useful negotiating strategies, honing my skills in the markets of Istanbul, Marrakesh, Jerusalem and New York City. Here are 5 rules to live by to be a top negotiator:
1. It doesn’t hurt to ask
Sometimes it may seem silly or even cheap, but suggesting a lower price or a discount can actually work. Recently, I received an invitation to attend an alumni networking luncheon. Since I’m all about a) networking and b) lunch, I thought this was right up my alley–except that the cost of the luncheon was more than I wanted to pay. So I emailed the organizer, told her I was really interested in attending but because I’m a small business owner and on a tight budget, I was wondering if she could offer a discount. The organizer came back and offered a 50% discount–which I happily took!
I often use my negotiating skills when I take my dog to the vet. While I am obsessed with my dog, I sometimes think that taking her to the vet can be a waste of money. Many times, the vet has no problem charging me an arm and a leg for a visit, or to do a bunch of unnecessary tests on my dog. I’ve learned my lesson though and these days when I take my dog to the vet, I tell them right off the bat that I want to keep costs low. I question everything they do and every test they recommend, and also ask of over the counter meds I can give my dog instead of the expensive stuff the vet pushes.
2. Know your limit
In many situations–at a flea market, bazaar or craft fair–the price marked is already an inflated price; it’s like the vendor is BEGGING you to haggle! In these situations, it’s OK to suggest a lower price, and test whether the vendor is willing to negotiate. Most of them have a minimum price they have to charge for each item in order to make a profit. Likewise, we should have a maximum price in our head for the item we want to buy. Negotiating a price should result in a good situation for both the seller and the buyer, but you shouldn’t give in so easily. Start off by setting a maximum price in your head and start low, with the end goal of purchasing that item at or below your set price.
3. Always low-ball
Once you know that the vendor is willing to negotiate, start off with a low price. The first price you offer shouldn’t be your final offer, just a starting point. If the vendor is interested, he may give you a counter-offer, or give you a good price for more than one item. However, if you’re in a professional situation, like you are negotiating event space or a deal on supplies from a vendor, you have less room to haggle. Make your first offer a thoughtful, solid offer and bring up reasoning behind why the offer is lower than the listed price–like a limited budget or if you agree to rent space on a slow day for the business owner.
4. Don’t be afraid to walk away
Sometimes, no matter how fair a counter-offer you make and how thoughtful the reasoning behind it is, some vendors don’t want to haggle. Or they may knock the price down a hair, which really does nothing for you. Sometimes, you get an unreasonable vendor with a bad attitude. If you think you’re getting nowhere, you feel offended or you think you should get a better deal, but the vendor isn’t negotiating in good faith, don’t be afraid to walk away. For one thing, it makes a better story. It’s always better to tell your friends you made a solid offer, but the vendor was a jerk and wouldn’t budge so you walked away out of principle–rather than forking over the full price.
More important, walking away shows the vendor you’re serious about the final price and that may motivate him to action. I’ve walked away from a bad deal several times over the years and more times than not, the vendor chases me down the street and gives me the price I want. Or in a business situation, the vendor puts me on hold to “talk to his colleague” and comes back with good news. Just yesterday I was standing on 6th Avenue and saw a hot dog vendor running after a customer. The vendor was waving a bottle of Mountain Dew and pleading with the man to take the bottle at the lower price. I don’t know what the customer told this guy but it seems to have worked!
5. Keep it light
The art of negotiation requires flexibility and a sense of humor. Haggling over an item, a deal or a car may be serious business but it should never get personal or hostile. It always helps to flatter the vendor, marvel at the handiwork of the item, the uniqueness of the service or convenient location of the space you want to rent. Offer some personal information explaining why this item is perfect for you or as a gift. Spend a moment on the phone with a vendor asking about his/her family before getting down to business. In the end, a smile and friendly (sincere!) conversation can get you a better deal than any fast-talking lawyer can.