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Let's Make a Deal

By

Our own Ryan Goldberg haggles his way through Manhattan.

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I must have appeared calm on the outside, but I was actually in stomach-churning turmoil. Beads of sweat gathered on my brow; my hands were clammy. Finally I spoke, my voice nearly cracking: "Can you do any better on that price?"

This was my first attempt at haggling during the Great Recession. Like most of my countrymen, it isn't something we're used to. But this everyday, tamer example of brinkmanship is finding a new audience in the US.

The shopping dynamic has changed: Consumers have leverage. With retailers like Gap (GPS), Abercrombie (ANF), Limited Brands (LTD) and Nordstrom (JWN) all struggling, haggling is no longer restricted to flea markets and used-car dealerships. Now consumer appliances, major electronics and jewelry can be subject to impromptu rounds of Let's Make a Deal.

In a recent survey, America's Research Group found that, over the past holiday season, some 72% of respondents said they'd haggled, compared to 56% who had the year before. And 80% of those reported hagglers said their efforts resulted in a better deal, compared to a 50% success rate the year before.

The true test, however, is whether designer boutiques and high-end chains are willing to strike a bargain.

I decided to find out for myself. Not only would this be a research trip, but a personal mission too. The Goldberg clan has historically been terrible at haggling - our Jewish anxiety sets us back. Until now, I've felt more comfortable as an accomplice to haggling. But, on a recent afternoon in New York City, I sought to reverse this genealogical curse, if only so my descendants may inherit a little chutzpah.

My setting: Manhattan's Soho - the upscale, younger counterpoint to Fifth Avenue. I arrive on Broadway shortly after noon; the sidewalks are unusually crowded, largely with groups of loud tourists.

I plan on being tactful. As brinkmanship, haggling is careful and complex; neither side must tip his or her hand too quickly. I don't intend to actually buy anything, so believability is key.

My first stop is Express Men. I used to shop here when it was called Structure. Now, it's an uber-metrosexual outpost, and I have little interest in what they're selling. Sales are posted everywhere in the nearly empty store; I settle on the fitted dress shirts (retail $49.50), now marked down 40%.

I nod to the young clerk, and slowly scan the shirts. My heart begins to beat faster. Pulling a white shirt from the bin, I pursue an indirect route, dumbly asking the clerk if it's 40% off. Yes, he replies, and adds that he can throw in an extra 15%.

Incredible - this is easy, I think. I didn't even need to bargain.

Next, I enter the European chain Zara. It's a slightly more upscale H&M, which is to say, flashy but shoddily made. The bouncer at the entrance cuts an intimidating figure: Short and stocky, wearing a dark leather trench coat and earpiece. He looks like a low-level Serbian hitman. I think better of haggling here, and turn around and leave.
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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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