5 Secrets for negotiating the best price every time

No one wants to overpay for a product or service. But how do you know you’re getting the best rate? And if you’re not being offered the lowest price, how do you negotiate it?

Answer: You can’t know — but you can haggle. And how!

A recent survey suggests a quarter of consumers go online to find the lowest price on an item, but it doesn’t say if they find it. Maybe that’s because the answer is unknowable. Businesses, it turns out, can’t be sure if their prices are the lowest, or even if an item that’s on sale will be profitable.

Even when you think you know, it may be difficult to get the price you want. Consider airline “low price” guarantees which promise to match a fare and add a little bonus for anyone who can find a better fare. But as Sarah Steele discovered recently when she tried to invoke one airline’s low-price “guarantee,” the fine print contained so many clauses that it soon became apparent the company would never keep its word — even with written evidence of a better rate.

“I have proof that there was a lower price at the time I purchased my ticket,” she told me, adding, “I feel like this is fraud.”

Guess what, Sarah? It is fraud. But unfortunately, it’s perfectly legal, too.

So how do you actually get the lowest rate?

Shop around before buying.
Steele should have done her fare shopping before visiting her airline’s website to book her ticket. A lot of companies like to lure you into a “direct” booking with a low-price promise, but the truth is, once you’ve forked over your money, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see a refund or credit. Fortunately, the Transportation Department has a 24-hour rule for fares bought in the United States that lets you cancel your reservation and rebook the lower price, so all is not lost. But you have to act quickly.

Remember, time is money.
Remember that old saying: Time is money? Well, now more than ever, that’s true. Even when you’re just paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, if you’re spending three hours to find the lowest price on an item, the product actually costs you $21.75 more than the sticker price. I’ve seen people lose their minds when it comes to bargain hunting, wasting many hours in order to save a few bucks. Don’t let that be you.

Know the lingo.
If you’re in the market for a big-ticket item, also called a “durable good” by economists, then you need to know two words: “price match.” Competition can mean the price you see isn’t necessarily the price you have to pay. I discovered the power of those two words when I went shopping for a much-needed camera upgrade a few weeks ago. I found a good price online, which got better when I clicked the “add to shopping cart” button (manufacturers require online retailers to display a sticker price, but after you add it to your cart, all bets are off). Then I went to my local camera retailer, found the right lens and setup, and asked if he’d price match. He did — right down to the bonus memory card.

Negotiate when you can, but know when you can’t.
I was talking with a friend who grew up in Italy and used to take his American friends to the Posillipo Market in Naples, a bazaar where locals shop for clothes and shoes. Locals know that you never pay full price for the items — you always negotiate. But his American friends were impatient and insisted on paying the full, and wildly inflated, “tourist” rate for their shoes. Point is, you should know when to negotiate, and when not to. Never pay full price for a car. But it’s OK to pay the asking price for groceries — unless you’re at an open-air market.

Don’t forget who has the power.
You don’t need to be a negotiating master to get the best price. Often, it’s as simple as keeping in mind that you have the power. It’s easy to forget that when you’re at the store or mall standing among the displays with a salesman hovering. But in the end, you don’t have to plunk down your credit card and you can walk away. Businesses know that. For you, the threat of walking away is the ultimate negotiating weapon. Combined with your politeness — never threaten to walk; simply say you’d like some time to “think it over” — you can often secure a better deal.

You might not always be able to find the lowest rate, but armed with a little research, smart time management, some insider knowledge, and a basic understanding of the marketplace, you can definitely come out ahead.

Is it worth trying to find the lowest price?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Justin

    The internet is the ultimate bargaining tool. A few clicks can give the sense of an item’s worth, value, and performace record. Never hurts to also ask around and check what friends have to say, too.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    For me it depends. Sometimes trying to squeeze the last penny of savings is just too much of a hassle.

    I found that Best Buy will match prices. They even took my word that Amazon has a better price and gave me the difference.

  • Justin

    Depends upon the savings and effort. If buying a car and negotiating a few thousand off sticker, then the money outweighs the time spent for most Americans. Those not making 200 or 300/hr :)

    If buying a few hundred dollar item and the savings is 10 bucks, but I need to sit on hold 45 mins for a representative, screw it. Ill mess with it if I have time or not at all.

    P.S. “Worst Buy” has revamped their policies to be more customer friendly on price matching finally. Prior, I wouldn’t shop there if life depended upon it. Now, they’ll match select online retailers, though not sure if only for online purchases or at store too?

    You ever shopped Microcenter? They have good deals on tech.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Never heard of them. Locally, the 800lb gorilla for total geekiness is Fry’s. You can buy anything from consumer electronics to volt meters to oscilliscopes. After seeing my brother-in-law and I going stupid with an infrared thermometer, measuring the temperature of everything with a flat surface, his wife told me in no uncertain terms not to buy one for him for Christmas :p

    And they price match.

  • Freehiker

    “Is it worth trying to find the lowest price”

    Neither answer is a good choice for me, so I’m not voting on this one =P. Sometimes it makes sense, other times it doesn’t.

    Regardless, I have never felt like a loser if someone paid less than me.

  • Freehiker

    Sigh…the ONLY thing I miss about living in TX is Fry’s.

    It’s heaven for geeks =)

  • frostysnowman

    We recently decided, after years of incremental increases, to cancel our Sirius XM radio service. When we called to make it official, they offered us a 60% discount, making our new rate lower than what we paid when we started with the service. We took the deal.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Also: When shopping online, add stuff to your cart, go to checkout, fill out everything except a credit card number, and then close your browser. If you registered with the site, they may send you an email coupon because they don’t want to lose the sale.

    Note: doesn’t work on Amazon, Wal-Mart, or Kohls, but I have received coupons from various smaller online retailers, just for pretending to buy stuff.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I never shopped at Best Buy again after they screwed me in 1998. I bought a video card. It was defective. I brought it back two days later after trying everything and anything…including calling the manufacturer’s horrible tech support line.

    Best Buy insisted I owed them a 15% restock fee, despite the thing not working.

    I hope they go the way of CompUSA.
    And soon.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Fry’s is love.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Something screwy is going on with Disqus. I posted three comments and they disappeared…

  • Justin

    I wasn’t impressed by Fry’s. I lose 10 geek points. Microcenter in Houston was my go to place (outside of online shopping when I use to live there.

    Did you ever check that one out Urof?

  • Justin

    I checked out Fry’s once and walked away unimpressed. I lose geek points (as stated below).

    Hahahah on the infrared thermometer. So did you buy him one for Christmas or do you keep that Ace card for if she ever gets on your nerves? You know that great toy we enjoyed, I’m going to stick that in his gift basket this year!

    Microcenter has prices comparable to online retailers and even does deeper discounts at times. I picked up an i7 processor years back for $199.99 when Newegg sold the same item for $279.99

  • AJPeabody

    It’s nice to save ten bucks on a TV, but for me the real haggle savings come from cable/phone/internet haggling. We can get either Verizon FIOS or Cablevision. A few weeks before my “deal” ends, I call up and suggest that the other one has a better deal. I ask for the present company’s new customer deal. Usually they refuse, so I call the disconnect department and ask how to cancel and change to the other company. The disconnect people give me the new customer deal. Saving 50 bucks a month for a year or two is worth the haggle time, for sure.

  • Cybrsk8r

    There are two Micro Center stores in the DC area. I buy a lot of my computer stuff there. You can even go online and find out if the store has what you want in stock, so you save a trip if they don’t have it.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I’ve seen that before. Not just here, but on other sites that use Disqus.

  • Joe M

    With Amazon you don’t need to do anything but look at the item. If you’re logged in, they track what you search for and will often send you a gold box deal a day or two later if you don’t buy. Unfortunately, their scripts don’t always correctly identify the item you’re actually wanting, so YMMV.

  • Fishplate

    Fry’s has components. It doesn’t appear that Micro Center does…

    Anyone can build a computer from assembled boards, but a Fry’s customer can build one from scratch.

  • Annie M

    I’ve notice several of my posts going to a “awaiting commentator review” status, even though none of the posting rules are broken, never to be seen again.

  • EvilEmpryss

    The bit about the bargain hunting costing you the equivalent wages for your time is disingenuous. I’m not getting paid for my time outside of work (and if I were paying myself it’d be a heck of a lot more than minimum wage!). If I’m multitasking by browsing the web for deals while watching TV I’m not even out the TV time… but I still get the bargain hunter’s thrill of snagging a good deal. I’ve been doing a complete master bath remodel using deals I found on the internet. I bagged a new vessel sink for $20 and a beautiful new faucet to go with it for $15. The bragging rights alone are worth it to me. :-)

  • Daddydo

    This is as interesting a question that has appeared in months. From lowest airfare to lowest car all the way to a complete vacation. The term needs to be best value. Is it worth $5, $50.00, $100,00 more to change planes against a non-stop? Or is it worth money not to change planes in New Your? Cheapest comes with a price.
    Air is easy, get lucky when you have your credit card ready. Cars are easy, do I want to have the car at the airport, or drive up to a half hour, sometimes in the wrong direction, to save a few bucks? Vacations? There is no way to ever assure yourself of the lowest price. An ASTA travel agent knows when there as a great value, good value, or wow did you wait too long to do this pricing.
    ASTA Travel agents that are sitting with you, working with you, teaching you, are where the new traveler should be aiming. We do it every day and know where to look. There are the cheapie travelers out there that can do it cheaper, better, and just screw things up.
    Jonj Q. traveler just saved 300.00 over my price flying on Allegiant Clarksburg to Sandford, Fl (the other Orlando airport). He could have been on Southwest with free luggage and carry-ons, saving at least $100.00 each way free transportation to the hotel,. He is staying on-site at the Swan, a great hotel, but none of the Disney Meal plans, fast passes, or special hours are available to his family. “I just saved $300.00”. No savings for your lost privlidges.

  • Annie M

    Our car dealer told us to let Sirius cancel and within a few days will contact us with a better offer. We always get it down to $5 per month for 6 months. We always call a few days before our time is up and cancel.

  • EvilEmpryss

    Bought a computer from them ten+ years ago that offered an amazing discount via rebate. I meticulously followed the instructions to claim it, making photocopies of everything for my records. I waited the six weeks and got no response so I contacted them. I was told that I had neglected to include something in the rebate submission. Okay, let’s ignore the fact that they neglected to tell me it was needed or contact me to tell me I needed to send it: I sent them everything the agent told me I needed, including copies of the copies of the original barcodes (since I sent the originals with the initial rebate request as directed). I was then told that I didn’t qualify for the rebate because I didn’t send the original barcodes… The same ones I had already turned in the first time!

    I worked for a solid year trying to get my bloody rebate, but it never appeared. From that point on if there was something I absolutely had to have from BB I insisted that they give me the rebate discount immediately or walked away.

  • SoBeSparky

    My one rule is not on the list: Always ask for a lower price. Come right out and say, “Is this MY lowest price?” I did this for a new refrigerator three weeks ago and saved over $200 off the marked “sale price.” I checked everywhere I could after the sale and could not find a lower price than I paid.

  • Christina Conte

    Once when I was looking at some market items near Naples, I overheard two older American women ask how much a certain item was, and the vendor’s response. A minute or two later, a local asked the price and it was less than half price, so I asked the vendor (in Italian), why two different prices for the same thing. He looked so embarrassed and didn’t know what to say, so I told the ladies what had happened, and told them if they were still interested, not to pay more than x amount. It’s good to know a little about the culture of the area one visits to avoid being taken advantage of, and with the internet, there’s no excuse anymore.


    You are so right about best value. The cheapest is not always the best value. I will pay a reasonable amount more to be on a nonstop flight instead of a connecting flight. Last time I bought an international ticket I paid about $250 more for the nonstop. I was concerned about approaching bad weather and the extra cost was worth the peace of mind.
    We have confused value and cheap–they are not the same thing at all. Buyers should have that in the forefront of their minds when making any purchase at all.

  • Justin

    Wow. So does Fry’s sell the components to build a board from scratch or does Fry’s let you order the components and assembles?

    Never built a board from scratch.

  • Dutchess

    Meh, I like to save the most I can but at some point, chasing a deal for a few extra bucks isn’t worth the time or effort.

    Another tip when haggling is bring a disinterested party, this is especially true when negotiating big ticket items like a car. It’s too easy to get emotionally caught up in the moment and you lose sight of your goal. I remember helping a friend with his car purchase and we started talking MSRP. The salesperson piped up and said “Well, the MSRP isn’t the full price, the full price is [adding on the dealer mark up]” I quickly replied “Yeah, that’s the full price because only a FOOL would pay it” and that quickly got us back on to a discussion from MSRP down towards invoice.

  • jerryatric

    I found an easy way out for some cases. Booked a hotel with booking.com & when I noticed a lower price advertised just before I was leaving, I contacted them figuring I was a loser, imagine my surprise when they credited the difference, AND the exchange rate as well.

  • MarkKelling

    Can’t handle Microcenter. The one in Houston has rude employees disinterested in helping the customers and never had the sale items available when I went there. I only go there if I need a cable or something I can find myself without needing help that no other store has in stock.

    I never had any issues with Best Buy other than the high pressure service contract spiel. I finally had to tell one sales person that if they mentioned the service contract one more time I would walk. They stopped pushing.

  • MarkKelling

    I got a great deal on Sirius when I bought my current car – one time payment of $500 for life (certain restrictions applied. ;-)).

    Six years later and it is still working fine and no push to pay more for it.

  • DavidYoung2

    We have a Micro Center locally. Decent prices, but low quality product. Went to buy more memory for my computer and all they had was downgraded garbage. I told the sales guy, “I’ll pay more for the good stuff, just show me where it is.” Then he confided that they don’t have ANY major brand — just downgrades and cheap junk. I had to go somewhere else.

    Funny thing, I went to Fry’s and they had the SAME problem. Just cheap garbage.

    But for cables or blank DVDs, Fry’s and Micro Center are fine. As long as you don’t want anything that’s quality…..

  • Fishplate

    Yep. Bare board, etch-resistant pen, and ferric chloride. You’ll have a new computer in no time! (Some assembly required)

  • LeeAnneClark

    Disqus seems to have gone through some sort of horrific “upgrade” which has caused it to seize up and turn itself inside out like an epileptic alien. I’m having the same problem on other blogs that use Disqus as well.

    “Upgrade” – the scariest word in the English language.

  • Justin

    So how much of the board is assembled or are you buying the components and doing 100% of the building?

    Love to learn that, but I’m no electronics engineer =).

  • Justin

    I’d shop at the one in Houston. I think the staff at most stores are disinterested in helping customers these days. I’ve yet to walk into most shops and have people running to help. Seems the service industry is less than service oriented.

    I’ve found plenty of name brand items at Microcenter. I got an intel i7 for 199.99 there when it was being sold for 279.99 online. Forgot what else I bought there, too.

    Never been a Best Buy fan. Prices are usually very high, though their new price match policies are more customer friendly.

  • Justin

    Never had a problem with low rent products. I always research what I buy. Their website lists what’s in stock. I haven’t been there in a few years, as I’ve moved out of Texas. However, I did find decent items at the time.

  • Justin

    CompUSA wasn’t bad… Why did you hate them?

  • Extramail

    I was shopping at Macy’s during the Christmas holidays and, when I checked out, I told the sales person what the pants were selling on line for. He gave me that price and then used my coupon for a discount. He did it so quickly that I wondered if maybe they were even cheaper than I thought on that particular day. So, sometimes shopping for the lowest price doesn’t feel like you’ve gotten the lowest price on that day.

    There are also some stores that if you pay full price for anything then you know you’ve overpaid (see Belk department store).

  • Extramail

    Did the same to me and I suggested they give me a refund for my having overpaid for months since I never thought to cancel to see if they would offer me a lower price. The xm rep laughed so I walked. It burns me up when I see all the marvelous offers being offered to “new” customers when us “old” customers have been paying their “old” prices. I understand you have to have teaser rates to attract new customers but if you offered us a fair price always then you might have customers stick around longer.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Lol. His wife is my sister, no Ace cards :-P

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The back of Fry’s looks like one of the EE (electrical engineering) labs I took back in undergraduate. You can go as far down the component level as you want.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Just don’t ask any questions. They’re as likely to make up the answer and give you the correct one.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Ditto. That happened to me with a Tivo unit.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    epileptic alien? ROTFLMAO!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I had an ASTA travel agent berate me because I choose a connecting flight from San Francisco to London for $2500, instead of a direct flight for $5500. He couldn’t (wouldn’t?) get that a 4 hour layover in the First Class lounge was easily worth the $3000.00 savings. I told him very politely to perform an “anatomical impossibility.”

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Consumer Reports taught me to negotiate from the dealer invoice up. Worked like a charm.

  • MarkKelling

    I hated CompUSA because when I went to buy a computer there that my mom wanted, I refused to buy the PC training CD for $100 they insisted I needed. I told the salesman I used computers every day at work (so did my mom) and knew enough to get by. His statement back was “It’s not every day we get a Bill Gates buying a computer here.” tore up the paperwork and walked away. I went to Radio Shack and got the same computer for about $250 less and no jerks for salesmen.

  • Justin

    Totally unprofessional. I would have gone to the manager and voiced my opinion. The actions of one rogue employee doesn’t represent the totality of a company.

    Seems taking business elsewhere got you a better deal, too.

  • MarkKelling

    He was the manager. Or so he claimed. :-)

  • Freehiker

    BB’s CEO said in an interview awhile back that they were struggling because they have turned into a showroom; people stop in to touch an item and see it in person, then go online to buy it. There’s simply far too much overhead involved in running a giant brick and mortar operation to compete with the prices of the Amazon’s of the world.

    The only way I see these types of retailers surviving is finding a niche, and then being very, very good at it.

    BB’s horrific customer service is what keeps me away. What escapes most retailers is that there are plenty of people (like me) that are willing to pay a little more as long as you have friendly, outgoing and knowledgeable staff and treat the customers fairly.

    I don’t need or want to have my butt kissed for shopping somewhere, but don’t treat me like an annoyance either.

  • Justin

    Buying a new car is a depreciating asset. The second the car is taken off the lot, the value diminishes. Buying used is a better decision if taking the time to shop smart. The bulk of the loss has already occurred.

    If insisting on buying new, Consumer Reports gives a good baseline for negotiation.

  • Justin

    Did his badge confirm manager status or was the salesman blowing smoke?

  • Justin

    People window shop at Brick and Mortars. Test out new products, comparison shop, then buy online.

    There’s a caveat. I wouldn’t buy a T.V. online unless the option to return is available. The chance of a dead pixel is substantial. Brick and Mortars will take back an item for exchange. Online retailers only take returns without restocking fee for X dead pixels or one in a core viewing area (center).

    Best Buy has tried to reinvent itself through cell phone sales. Also, Best Buy has now partnered with Samsung. I can’t speak for the success rate, as I don’t use Best Buy.

  • VoR61

    Agreed. And a note about nonstop flights. We have found that flights over 2.5-3 hours are best broken up into layovers. We get a chance to stretch (we walk the concourses) and get some food. This has become an approach that is our “best value”.

    I understand that some prefer nonstop, which we do also if it’s under 3 hours. But the extra stops now actually work in our favor. So a part of the “best price” analysis is knowing your own wants and needs. What works for one will not work for all …

  • Extramail

    Did you see the article the other day that amazon is testing a system that will predict your purchase before you make it so they can have it on your doorstep within hours of ordering? Kind of scary actually. It uses your on-line views, purchasing patterns, etc. Look it up.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • VoR61

    With regard to “my time” spent, one thing I always keep in mind is that for some it is value added. Years ago our daughter was a single mom living on a very tight budget. So spending 45 minutes to save $20 could make a HUGE difference to her. I respect that the extra time may work for those who struggle financially while being a poor use of time for others.

  • Justin

    Precisely my point. If your sister annoyed you growing up, you can now extract revenge.

  • Miami510

    Some thoughts:

    1. The best 7 words in negotiating which often result in a lower price… I suggest memorizing it: Is that the best you can do?

    2. Often the factors such as “after sales service,” and vendor reliability come in to play. In some cases the absolute lowest price means no service, no vendor responsibility and assembling… installing… everything yourself.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    clothes & footwear can’t be tried on if buying online. Who wants the hassle of sending something back, if it doesn’t fit or doesn’t look at good in reality as those good photos online.

  • Heather Phillips

    Funny Irish singers nail it…. I just saw this about “Cheap Flights” http://biggeekdad.com/2011/03/cheap-flights/#.Ut1JKUu9U3o.gmail

  • Justin

    Haggling, like tipping, depends upon where you’re at in the world. America we tip 15-20% of a meal for service. Sweden, tipping isn’t customary, as the wait staff make good money. The same for haggling. Some places haggling is the norm and others prices are as listed.

    Good to know some about the local culture, or ask locals.

  • MarkKelling

    Don’t remember that level of detail. But I doubt I would have bought the computer at that point even if they offered it to me at half price.

  • Joe M

    tl;dr version of below: Annoying, sure. Scary, not really. Follow the old adage that you shouldn’t be doing stuff you don’t want your momma to find out about and it’s not that scary. Can definitely be infuriating and annoying, but not scary.

    Yeah, I saw it. I can understand why some people find it scary. Being a programmer and having been tasked a couple times with trying to predict what my users will do, I don’t find it scary.

    Bottom line is that most people are easy to predict when it comes to specific activities, I don’t really even need to know that much about you in order to do it. That being said, what most people freak out over is what information you’re actually giving the company when you use their site.

    The short version is that once you’re on the web, assume that every keystroke, mouse movement, and click _can_ be tracked. The only reason why it isn’t is that 95% of the time, no one cares — and yes, that even includes the NSA.

    Once you understand that, then you have to decide if you’re still willing to give up that info. If so, then using the web (and all the predictive analysis comes with it) shouldn’t be scary. Can be a lot of other things, but not scary.

  • bhaktapur

    TX has Frys. And it’s the best place to shop electronics.

  • Freehiker

    Uhhh…..yeah, that’s what I said. O.o

  • Christina Conte

    Why just Sweden? Tipping is not customary anywhere in Europe, as far as I know.

  • Justin

    Ireland, uk, and italy have picked up on tipping. Seems our western ways havr crossed the pond.

    Sweden it isn’t necessary. Knew someone thbere and asked. Asked locals / frequent travelers in the places above and was told yes