Want a Discount? Just Use the Obvious But Magic Words

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A little over a year ago, a San Diego-based graduate student and blogger who goes by the name Roxy began a simple yet brilliant experiment. At least once a day from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009, she nicely asked shopkeepers, waiters, flight attendants, and pretty much anyone else she ran across if they could give her discounts, perks, upgrades, freebies, or any other sort of extra.

It turns out that the simple act of asking is often more than half the battle in getting more for your money, as Roxy explained in regular posts at her blog, The Daily Asker. Flirting also helps. Fascinated, I asked her about what she learned while asking for discounts a total of 411 times over a year’s time.

Cheapskate: Where did the idea come from? Why did you do it?

Roxy: I was sitting on my grandmother’s couch reading a book a friend had recommended, “Women Don’t Ask.” It argues that women lose out big time by not negotiating salaries and asking for promotions, benefits, opportunities, and more. The message instantly sank in. Not because I failed to do what the book describes (as a grad student, I haven’t had many chances to negotiate compensation packages), but because I still saw a side of myself in those women. The desire to please, be helpful, be grateful, not rock the boat. When I got to page 7 I thought, “What if I asked? Wait minute … What if I asked daily!? And blogged about it? Should I? Could I?” I wrote the introductory post that instant. That night I asked my first question, and I didn’t stop for a year.

Some people view asking for discounts and negotiating as “recession shopping” tactics. In my case … I’m always in a recession! I mean, I’m a grad student, not exactly raking in the dough, so I would say it was more my personal circumstances than the tough times that motivated me to aggressively seek deals. Also, that last summer I started thinking about my post-graduation job hunt, so that preoccupation led me to the book.

CS: Do you remember the first few times you asked for a discount? What happened? Were you nervous?

R: The first time I asked I was definitely jittery. I’d been looking around for opportunities all day, but nothing. Finally, around 9:30, my boyfriend and I went to a comedy show at a noisy nightclub, and I decided to ask if one of us could get in for free. First, I checked the price: “How much?” “$3” I heard, through the din. I summoned my courage and tried, “Could we do two for one?!” The bouncer/ticket guy replied, “FREE, not $3!!” Oh.

The next day, I asked for a favor from a medical receptionist, on behalf of my grandmother. She instantly agreed, and I was amazed that one second of talking had made my grandma’s day a little easier. At no cost to the receptionist. Once she said yes my only thought was, “Argh, why didn’t I think of this sooner?!”

One reason I was nervous those first few weeks: I kept the project a secret. I wanted the freedom of taking those first steps, unexamined. I put the posts online, but told nobody. So I wondered if the people around me while I was asking—my family and friends—would think I was suddenly weirdly obsessed with bargaining or obtaining favors. Which I was, but for reasons they didn’t suspect.

Also, setting up a project with a goal made asking seem more “significant.” I’d bargained at farmers markets and asked for free samples before. But suddenly the results mattered. I was taking notes. I was trying to learn and improve the outcome with every attempt. So I guess you could say I was performing, in a sense. I was thinking about it, planning it, deciding the best approach, and then saying the words that an “asker” would say.

It took a few months for asking to become second nature. Now I still think about my strategy or what I’ll say, but mostly for bigger challenges.

CS: What did you learn in terms of what kinds of businesses were willing to deal, and which weren’t? Can you make some generalizations, so that others might know what to expect?

R: With Craigslist, estate sales, farmers markets, I always got a discount. Now I know that if I’m not asking there, I’m definitely missing an opportunity. As for big box or department stores, I expected more flexibility. Especially given all the media hype around the holidays last year that “This season, no price is firm!” and “Stores are dying to unload inventory. Mindy in Michigan got this discount, and Karl in California got this one!” Well, I tried at Macy’s, Best Buy, Fry’s, Ikea, Cost Plus, and Pier One, and never got a thing. I had better results at smaller stores. You’re dealing with owners and managers directly. I suspect they’re less caught up in policies. Plus, if you happen to be the only customer in the store, you have their undivided attention—and more bargaining power.

But I’ll refrain from making generalizations, because my experience is limited. I only shopped in a few department stores, and I wasn’t buying a lot. The conventional wisdom is that it’s easier to get a discount there on a washer and dryer, not a washcloth. One thing I will try, next round, is focusing on the right person: the decision maker. Maybe I was asking the cashier, when I should have approached the section manager. Actually, I’d love to hear from people who successfully negotiated in department stores! What were their strategies?

CS: What are some of the best discounts you’ve gotten simply by asking?

R: Last summer I asked for $10 off a skirt and a silk caftan, which would have been around $75, together, at full price. That was the first time I realized that everything is negotiable, even price tags. Before, I never would have thought to bargain down something outside a garage sale or outdoor bazaar. Certainly not in a boutique.

More recently, I went to an estate sale and saw a Turkish kilim I instantly fell in love with. The colors, the tight weave, just not the price: $150. That’s a lot, especially for a rug I don’t need. It was the last day of the sale, so I asked an employee if I could get a discount. “How about I give you half off?” she asked, and she looked positively thrilled to be making me happy. But even that was more than I wanted to spend, so I gulped and tried again: “Wow, thank you! That’s a great price! The thing is, and I know I’m crazy to suggest this, but I am looking to buy a rug for … $50. Is there any way you can do that?” She checked with her boss and came back to say okay. That very rug is beneath my chair, as I type!

The biggest win: I scored two round trip vouchers on United by “volunteering” two seats I didn’t want. Before this project, I probably would have skipped the flight and left it at that, but 1) I had to meet the asking requirement for the day, and 2) I was in the habit of looking for opportunities.

My final discount of the year was three months of gym membership for the price of two. I’m not sure what bewilders me more: That I saved $30 in about 3 minutes, or that I joined a gym!!!

CS: What are some of the funniest reactions you’ve gotten from sales people?

R: Usually, sales people are pretty chill. Either they say yes or no. Restaurants and hotels are a different story. One of my favorites: At a pastry shop in San Diego that has a very high opinion of itself, I tried asking for half a portion of croissant-bread pudding for half the price. (It’s huge, and expensive, so I thought I’d try.) The cashier, with an expression that suggested I wasn’t worth the breath he was about to expend on an answer, sighed, “We don’t DO that here.”

CS: Can you pass along some strategic tips for the smartest ways to ask for a discount? Certain phrases to use, or situations that are ripe for requesting a discount?

R: All situations are ripe for discounts. Even those you doubt would be. So the first suggestion is to make a habit out of asking. You’ll probably be surprised by the results, in the long run. Here are three more pointers:

1. Be nice! In fact, I have the numbers to back it up: I analyzed my results and determined how successful I was, based on different attitudes I adopted while asking. I found out that when I was meek or apologetic, I had a 58 percent success rate. When I was neutral, I had a 67 percent success rate. When I was hostile, I had a 71 percent success rate. When I was nice, that rate jumped to 80 percent, and when I was really, really nice or flirty, the rate was 85 percent.

Wouldn’t you be more likely to give in to someone who’s smiling, making eye contact and making you feel good about making his or her day?

2. Study the other side. At a farmer’s market, merchants want to get rid of produce before it spoils. So they’re more willing to deal at the end of the day. You might end up with a free bag of sweet tomatoes, just for asking to sample one. Who knows? I often say, “How about an end of the day discount?” In some countries, it’s good luck to make the first sale of the day. So knowledge is power. Same thing for hotel reservations: If a place is at capacity, you won’t get a break. But if the rooms are empty all over town (and you find out by calling a few other places ahead), you might have more leeway. So study the objectives and expectations of who you’re asking, and use that info.

3. Be empathetic. This is my golden rule of asking. It helps keep me grounded, but paradoxically, helps me be more bold. Because what may seem like a big deal to me is often not to the other person. On the other hand, I also stop and think about whether the other party would feel somehow constrained to give in. Is he or she at a disadvantage? Desperate to make a sale? In that case, don’t be a jerk. And if someone does indulge you, say thanks, spread the word about that business, leave a bigger tip. Isn’t that the treatment you’d hope for, if the tables were reversed?