Bargaining Chips : The dipping...

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soledad Fierro wanted to deal. But the marketing director for Hollywood Community Hospital wasn't negotiating at a flea market or garage sale. She was bargaining for a $230 strand of fresh-water pearls at Nordstrom. When the haggling was over, a sales manager had shaved off $50.

Olivia Cervantes, 30, a UCLA publicist, recalls purchasing a $60 blouse at Bullock's that was on sale for $40. That price tag was then reduced to $30 after she noted a missing gold-trimmed button "would be hard to find."

Not long ago, businesswoman Susan Alpert told a sales clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue: "If this Ungaro dress goes on sale, I'll be back." The clerk offered to knock 50% off the $1,900 tag. Alpert instead worked a deal on an Oscar de la Renta suit.

Across Los Angeles, consumers courageous enough to dicker are bargaining at stores where you might least expect it--even though some retailing establishments deny such deals occur.

The recession, retail bankruptcies and Southern California's increasing number of consumers and merchants from cultures in which bargaining is a way of life are giving consumers an edge at the cash register.

Tom Tashjian, a retail trade analyst with Seidler Amdec Securities Inc. in Los Angeles, says although haggling isn't a mainstream trend, the time is ripe for shoppers to attempt to bargain at department stores--at least on some items. "At the larger retail companies, it is difficult to bargain because prices are (frequently) structured and fixed," he says. Any flexibility will be on big-ticket items such as jewelry and furniture or at overstocked stores, he adds.

Alan Millstein, publisher of Fashion Network Report, a New York-based monthly newsletter to retailers, says consumers are more likely to make deals at smaller stores. "At the moment the consumer is king."

Rodrick P. Safarian, manager of California Go Sport Inc., a sporting goods shop at the Glendale Galleria, says he'll take on any haggler because, "I'm a bargainer, too. I'm Armenian and I love to bargain. I deal a lot with ethnic people who want me 'to do a little better.' Most of the time it's a cultural thing." But Safarian adds that the recession also is slowly changing the way he does business.

Recently, Safarian says he and a customer haggled over a $500 pair of skis. Safarian offered to reduce the price, but the customer wanted more. Safarian tossed in a free $35 ski mount.

Harold Rosenberg, co-owner of Dave Tipp Jewelry in downtown Los Angeles, says nine out of 10 shoppers at his store "want to haggle." More than 50% of his weekly sales have been negotiated over the counter.

"Our customers, because of customs, don't feel like they've accomplished something if they don't haggle," Rosenberg says about his clients, most of whom are Latino and Asian. But he says he and his staff recently have begun to notice that Anglos also are slowly getting into the act of bargaining.

David Wong, the owner of Unique, a men's boutique on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, says many of his regular customers--especially those of Latino, Asian or Middle Eastern background--are accustomed to bargaining. But Wong--who immigrated from China 12 years ago--adds he has noticed a general increase in bargaining among shoppers, including Anglos, because of the downturn in the economy.

"Of course small retailers like us always want to try to create repeat customers and one way of doing that is by bargaining," Wong says. "It's not something I do with every customer. It depends on the customer--how much he wants it, if he's going to buy and if he's nice."

Some merchants instruct sales clerks to refer serious hagglers to the boss. Some clerks have the authority to automatically shave off as much as 20% or to match another store's price. Other retailers--if it means nailing down a sale without slashing a price--will appease a haggler with a token free item. In addition, many merchants, at locations ranging from suburban malls to trendy Melrose Avenue to downtown's Broadway, maintain multilingual staffs.

Says Fierro, who moved to the United States 20 years ago from Ecuador: "Especially on Melrose and Broadway, it's unbelievable how so many store assistants speak Spanish. The ladies are very sophisticated. The stores even play South American music, which makes me feel very at home."

And comfortable enough to bargain.

"Bargaining is in my blood. It's part of my culture," says Fierro, who estimates she saved herself $3,000 in the last year by haggling.

At a Monterey Park boutique, Fierro saved $120 on a silk dress that was ticketed at $250.

She admits that she has more luck negotiating discounts at smaller retail shops where she can deal with the owner directly. Still, every now and then Fierro has worked out a discount at a major department store, including Nordstrom where she haggled $1,000 off a diamond and gold necklace and bracelet that was priced at $4,500.

Michelle Garratt, media relations coordinator for Los Angeles Nordstrom stores, says store policy is not to bargain.

"Our prices do not fluctuate as far as offering a bargain to a customer," she says when told of Fierro's buys. "If an item is not in top-selling shape, our first priority is to fix it and get it in top-selling shape. This is our commitment to customer service, rather than have to say that this is an opportunity for a bargain." (Calls to other department store chains about their bargaining policies were not returned.)

Cervantes says the recession has encouraged her bargaining instincts. Last month, she paid $45 for $85 worth of bicycle accessories at a Santa Monica cycle store after she negotiated at the counter with the shopkeeper.

"I want the best gloves, the best lock, the best mount lock and the best price," she recalls hinting to the owner. She says during the haggling process she and the owner talked about cycling and she complimented him on the store and its merchandise.

"It never hurts to try to get a deal. The worst that can happen is being told, 'No,' " she says.

Michael Lemkin, vice president of Oppenheimer & Co. in Westwood, a brokerage firm, prides himself on his shrewd haggling skills which he says have lowered prices on a suit, rental cars, shoes, an apartment lease, hotel rooms and more recently, an answering machine.

Lemkin, who has haggled everywhere from Filene's Basement in Boston to duty-free shops at airports--and he believes everything in life is negotiable.

"The retailing business is in the worst shape it can be in right now. It's ripe for making deals. But if you bargain, make it pleasant. Use leverage. You don't want to take advantage of the retailer. You want to build a good relationship when you deal because then you can get deals for the rest of your life."

J.J. Kaplan, a transplanted New Yorker, grew up in a family of bargainers. The senior consultant for state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), honed his haggling technique from watching his grandmother, who sold notions on New York's lower Eastside.

Married last month, Kaplan says he "got great deals" while arranging various services for his wedding, including limousines, and later, a honeymoon suite at a Palm Springs hotel "just by making offers."

Bargaining is not just about lower prices. Santiago Sia, an assistant professor of philosophy and director of the Asian and Pacific Studies program at Loyola Marymount University, says haggling provides other benefits.

"When you come from a family or a culture where bargaining is expected, shopping is not just shopping, it is a social thing. It has social value," says Sia, who as a young boy and man in the Philippines, remembers making deals on products from fruit to clothing to small appliances--and sharing stories, gossip, and having fun in the process.

Dave Stewart, a consumer psychologist and USC marketing professor, agrees. He says Southland residents from other parts of the world--"where making a deal is a form of social interaction and where not is an insult to a merchant"--have been haggling in Los Angeles for years in their own neighborhoods.

"The Anglo-American," says Stewart, "really is not brought up with bargaining skills. Part of our Anglo-American culture tells us that we are successful to the extent that we should pay retail or that if an item is discounted, well, then there must be something wrong with that product."

Eugene Cooper, an associate professor of anthropology at USC, says Anglos bargain when shopping for a car or negotiating a mortgage, because there are "few contacts in our own Anglo culture where haggling is all right." Outside of those negotiations, he says Anglos are usually embarrassed to wheel and deal because "the WASP epithet is, 'If you have ask how much it is, then you can't afford it.' "

Bargaining is a skill, he says, that is learned through experience. It is also a skill that generally has not been much of a tradition among Anglos in this country.

But Renee Florsheim, assistant professor of marketing at Loyola Marymount, says: "As we become more and more a multicultural society in Los Angeles, Anglos will start to incorporate things into their lives that come from other cultures." And one of those benefits is bargaining.

"We have gone through waves of consumerism where people have become more confident in demanding information, services and money off," she says, referring to rebates on automobiles and extended warranties on products. "Consumers are starting to apply that to institutions like retailers because right now there is a little bit of desperation in the marketplace that wasn't there before. They see the other side of the counter weakening."

The Fine Art of Haggling a Better Bargain

Looking for a deal? What follows is advice from anthropologists, marketing professors, investment advisers and skilled hagglers.

1. Don't be embarrassed to ask for a price break. Paying less than the ticketed price doesn't label you a tightwad. It says you're smart enough to save money.

2. Be polite, not pushy. Leave your haggling open-ended. Instead of saying, "I can't afford that," say, "Can you do a little better?"

3. Don't haggle if you're not going to buy.

4. You'll have better haggling luck at small stores than at department stores.

5. Shop sales. This is the best time to ask for even further reductions.

6. Be a regular customer.

7. Pay with cash. It saves the retailer a fee to the credit card company.

8. Be prepared for rejection. Not all merchants are willing to haggle.

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