A man and woman walk into an electronics store in Toronto's Chinatown. The man is looking to buy a watch. Not a nice watch, just any old watch. He settles on an average-looking Citizen. "What's the best possible price you can give me?" he asks. The tension immediately amps up. The sales clerk jabs some numbers into a calculator and shows the revised figure to the man: "This price is special." Here, the watch-buying man throws the salesman a pitch. "What if I buy a watch for me and one for my wife? What price can you give me?" he asks. Out comes the calculator again, and soon there's a new, lower, very special price.
But then comes the curveball, a tactic so shrewd that it made me vow to change the way I buy stuff. The stranger says, "Now, I want you to give me that price for one watch." The clerk begins pleading with the man, but he's having none of it, and makes a move for the door. The clerk has one last tactic: the wife. "She is so beautiful," he says. "She deserves a nice present." The man feints toward the door, this time actually opens it. Finally the salesman relents and makes the sale.
Haggling. This is how all transactions were meant to be done. Ten thousand years ago, no self-respecting caveman would attempt to buy a new spear without saying something along the lines of, "Five elk hides? You gotta be kidding. I'll give you three." These days, though, the grand dialogue that is capitalism has become one-sided. Sellers still have plenty to say about price-"Only $39.99!", "$14.99 for a limited time!", "Don't pay a cent until 2009"-but buyers are silent. We just hand over our credit cards. It's a wonder we don't apologize when it's all said and done.
I decided to do something about this.
First attempt: Health club Health clubs always offer deals. At the very least, they will waive the initiation fee. The waiving of the initiation fee, you might say, is the initial ritual. But armed with what I had seen in the watch store, I was pretty sure I could do better.
I called up Diesel Fitness, arguably the swankiest health club in town and the kind of open-concept temple of narcissism that's swarming with clientele so hot it can induce a panic attack. Just my luck, there was a membership sale. Over the phone, the perky saleswoman told me that the regular price was $1,299 for a year, but she was willing to let me in for $1,099. Oh, and they would be happy to waive the initiation fee.
"What if my wife joins, too?" I asked. "I could give it to you for $805 per person." Not bad. "How about $750?" "I can honour that." While everyone on those elliptical trainers was paying $100/month, I had got it for a cool $62.50/month. Payday.
I know what you're thinking: Why didn't I paint my wife out of the deal, like the man in the electronics store? The answer is fear. The saleswoman's voice was getting tight, and I was getting nervous, scared of pushing her any further. In truth, I just wanted the whole experience to be over.
I don't have the faintest idea why this is. After all, it's not like the saleswoman was selling a piece of herself-watercolour paintings or soapstone carvings of her cat. She was hawking a product and being paid, I assume, a decent salary to do so. Why should she be offended? And yet, it felt like I had broken some unwritten code. Haggling is offensive, rude, improper and uncivil. It may even be unCanadian.
But if there's one thing the health club experience illustrates, it's that while we're busy being decorous and polite, we're paying more than we need to. How much more? I put the question to a friend of mine who works for a major potato chip company. I asked him because he is the only person I know who can tell you the margin on what he's selling. A small bag of All-dressed costs the corner store about 91 cents, he said. They turn around and sell it for $1.29. That's a 30% markup. On a bag of chips.