Sunday, February 01, 2009

How to Haggle at Fancy Stores in NYC

NYT shows us how to bargain for lower priced furniture at stores like ABC carpet and the Conran Shop. I liked the strategy that the author used, by knowing or pretending to know what he wanted and then treating the retail associate respectfully and asking their opinion and suggestions, it got me each time.

ONE freezing afternoon last week, after spotting a sign for an “Avalanche Sale: 20-50 Percent Off,” I stepped into Cite, a cavernous modern furniture store on Greene Street in SoHo. I wandered around for several minutes, and then stopped at a brown, low-slung, three-seater sofa near the front of the showroom. A saleswoman was soon by my side.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT Some stores, like ABC Carpet & Home, were willing to reduce their prices when the writer tried to bargain.
The sofa was made in the Netherlands, I was told. The designer, Bjorn Mulder, is a big shot in Europe, I was told. The price was $6,447, I was told — at which point I asked the obvious question: is the sofa part of the avalanche?

The saleswoman, tall, slim, a little hungry in the eyes, said it was not, but that she could give me the same 20 percent “to the trade” discount that she extends to decorators and architects. That brought the price to $5,158 before tax. At this point, I took a breath and steeled myself for something I had never tried before, or even thought to try, in a high-end furniture store: haggling.

There has been a lot of talk in the last year about shoppers taking advantage of the economic climate by bargaining with retailers, mostly on volume merchandise like TVs or mattresses. But Manhattan’s sanctums of new and vintage modern design were a different matter, it seemed to me. I’d always liked what they sold, but I found the gallery-like stillness of the showrooms intimidating, and the prices were generally too high for me. Until now, anyway, the idea of challenging those prices would have struck me as absurd.

But these days, the thinking goes that it’s a buyer’s market for anyone looking to buy anything. And, as it happens, I’m currently in the market for everything, having just moved into a new apartment where the sum total of my décor is two card tables and an old leather recliner. I may not be a regular customer of the design boutiques of SoHo and TriBeCa, but if there is ever going to be a time for me to furnish my home in high style, this would seem to be it.

So last week, I set out to test the willingness of home furnishings retailers to bargain. I chose only furnishings that I genuinely liked and might conceivably buy, and kept my other agenda — reporting this story — to myself until a final price was arrived at, so as not to influence the proceedings.

Before I began, I had to overcome a stumbling block: I’d never haggled in any retail store and wasn’t sure how to go about it. Like many people, I don’t relish negotiating, especially when it involves money. (I don’t think of myself as a pushover, but I don’t drive a hard bargain, either.) To educate myself, I called two experts, Robert Verdi, a New York-based style guru to the stars (and a host of the Discovery Channel’s now defunct “Surprise by Design”), and Daniel Shapiro, the associate director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, which conducts research and training on conflict resolution for everything from marital to international border disputes.

Years before his TV days, Mr. Verdi was in the retail trenches, selling linens at ABC Carpet & Home in Manhattan, and his tips seemed informed by his memories of dealing with flaky shoppers. He recommended being friendly to the salesperson, appearing to be a committed buyer and knowing what you want. “You don’t say, ‘I need a table,’ ” Mr. Verdi said. “It should be, ‘I’m looking for a round, wood table. I’m flexible with tones.’ Then you say, ‘I’m interested in buying this. It’s a little more than I’ve budgeted. What’s the best you can do?’ ”

By framing the negotiation as a question instead of a demand, Mr. Verdi said, it “gives the salesperson the power, as opposed to making them feel bullied.”

Mr. Shapiro, speaking from his home in Arlington, Mass., agreed that establishing a rapport was crucial to successful bargaining, and said he often asks a salesclerk for advice: a tactic that transforms the encounter from “an adversarial game” into a joint problem-solving session. Too often, he said, customers consider only their own interests — that is, getting what they want at a low price. “I’m always very aware of the interests of the salesperson,” he said. “I’m aware they work on commission. I’m aware they want to make a deal. Then it’s thinking creatively about options that can meet their interest and my interest.”

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