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 . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • 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