Hate to haggle? You're not alone. Consumer Reports' recent national survey found that just 48 percent of shoppers tried bargaining for a better deal on everyday goods and services in the past three years, down from 61 percent in 2007.
But if you're chicken, you lose. Eighty-nine percent of those who haggled were rewarded at least once. Successful furniture hagglers saved $300 on average, as did those who questioned a health-related charge. Those who challenged their cellphone plans saved $80.
Savvy negotiators know that politeness, friendliness and a smile are harder to resist than tough talk. "A my-way-or-the-highway approach limits you, because if you then reduce your demands, you run the risk of losing face," says Steven Cohen, president of Massachusetts-based Negotiation Skills, which teaches corporate clients how to sharpen their bargaining techniques. "Negotiation isn't a competitive sport."
Consumer Reports suggests these other tips for smart bargaining:
• Assume everything is fair game. Retailers drop prices all the time and call it a sale. "It's not in the seller's best interest to charge one price to all customers," says Stephen Hoch, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "You charge different prices to different people based on their willingness to pay. As long as you sell something for more than your cost, you are making a profit."
• Don't be intimidated by a title. Hoch says that many people are reluctant to confront doctors or lawyers. But Dr. John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center, says that almost everyone in health care — whether physicians, hospitals, labs or imaging departments — will eventually accept less if you dispute an out-of-pocket charge.
• Be willing to bargain for big bucks. You can't win if you don't try. A 23-year-old college grad (he didn't want his name used) was accepted into several law schools and was offered generous scholarships by some. As his commitment deadline loomed, two of the schools increased their offers, but his first choice didn't. He approached the admissions officers of his top pick, told them that another school had upped the ante, and asked for more ($40,000 a year), knowing it would never agree to that amount. The school, which had initially offered $30,000, countered with $33,000, and they sealed the deal.