What a bargain…?
I am a poor negotiator – nay, I’m a fantastically awful one. There’s simply no denying that. I’ve probably bled out more cash on random trinkets than any man alive… with the possible exception of my dad. That’s how I know that negotiation skills are genetic. My dad is awesome at a million things – he paints, sings, draws, writes, and orates at skill levels rivaling most professionals; plus, he packs another zillion talents at a semi-pro level. I think he compensates for this proficiency by being fantastically bad at bargaining.
Let me take you back a decade or so, back when we visited Delhi and roamed the flea market, notorious for its insane price fluctuations. Mom zeroed in on a handbag from a street vendor and started negotiating the price.
The vendor, being a veteran artist with years of experience working the crowd, stood firm at first, relaying the usual sob stories about how he had so many mouths to feed, how he was scraping by on wafer-thin margins, and how the handbag was sewn together by weeping orphans who had to single-handedly support a family of five, including terminally ill parents and an unwed sister who had to fight with her evil in-laws while carrying a child or two.
Mom knew enough to see through these expertly crafted sob stories as mere excuses, and held her ground, whittling away at the price, cutting down from 150 bucks to 100, and still going strong.
By this time, the vendor had changed tacks to focus on the quality of the materials used – how the handbag was made of fine imported leather, from lovingly herded Delhi cows, hand-crafted using the latest computerized machinery, hand-threaded by skilled veterans of the trade with decades of of experience in the industry, while somehow still being orphans with back-breaking family responsibilities.
He also made sure to note how the cost of materials alone was so high that cutting the price by even a single paisa would be enough to send him and his next seven generations to bankruptcy.
Sure, he was willing to drop another 10 bucks, but only because dad and mom looked like nice people and he was personally invested in giving them the best handbag experience in Delhi, even if it meant he would have to go hungry for the month.
Mom stood firm, expertly noting the subtle plot holes in the sales pitch, and continued haggling for around 15 minutes till the price dropped to 85. I know people who could have gotten it to drop further, but this was a fair victory. The vendor was ‘begrudgingly’ packing the handbag at ‘a huge personal loss’, when my dad decided to chime in.
Until this point, my dad had remained in the background of this negotiation. He wasn’t inactive – he nodded, shook his head, and gave short phrases of support to whatever mom was saying. But after the 15 minute mark, he felt a tug of remorse – how can he be so callous as to deny someone his livelihood? what about those poor orphans? He said – “You know… he does have a point. It IS genuine leather after all. And that doesn’t come cheap, right?”
The vendor’s vigor was rejuvenated by the surprise support from a really really unlikely ally. He re-started the sob machine and laid it on thick. Mom is not one to shy away from a challenge. If vendors bring in backup support from their own camp, and improvises sob-story roulette spins in a tag-team activity, she wouldn’t throw in the towel; she would soldier on without batting an eyelid; but when her beau and till-death-do-us-part partner-in-life volunteers right into the other team, that’s when she starts throwing in towels all over the place.
By the time my folks left the store, a handbag heavier and a 100 bucks lighter, we had a new family rule in place. If you’re haggling over the price, you finish the argument in under 15 minutes. After that time, it was understood that dad would be swayed into the other side.
It’s not like dad is unaware of this handicap. He is absolutely clear on how much he sucks at haggling – just as I’m clear on how much I suck at haggling. But this self-awareness simply does not help us get better. Thinking about how bad we are at it just makes us even worse.
This was re-illuminated in my recent quest for new headphones. I have been in the market for a pair of high end headphones for a while now. I felt that Beats packed too much bass, and Bose had treble written all over it. They also suffered from severe unaffordability, which was a big factor for me. Last year, I had sampled a few minutes on KEF’s new launch, the KEF M500. It sounded the right combination of awesome – the bass was punchy, the treble was just right, and the overall experience was immersive. However, at $320, it still suffered from unaffordability. I had to cut off my plans and face the music with nothing but my $1 in-ear abominations that I bought at a street fair.
But over the course of the year, many stores gave these away along with high end purchases of iPhones/ home theaters, and eventually, the market was ripe full of people who inadvertently walked into a pair of headphones they didn’t ask for. Many of them were trying to unload unopened, unused pieces for $250 on online sites… Some dropped it further to $180. Eventually, an Arab gentleman advertised at $140, at which point, the unaffordability scales started tipping in my favor, and I decided to buy it.
After all – I thought to myself – $140 was a great deal… although, I confess, not as great as $130… or $139, for that matter. It was at this point that it suddenly struck me that I should bargain the price down further. But.. but how? It’s already a great deal at $140. After all, it was a genuine, unopened KEF M500, with an award winning aluminium design. From a premium British… oh, no. wait. I was already siding with the seller!
I hadn’t even spoken to the guy, and I was already drumming up the sale, arguing from his side. Come on, genes!! A million talents to choose from, and THIS is what you picked up from dad?
There’s a time to frown on your genetic inheritance, but this was probably not it. I grinned and bore it, called the guy and just accepted the deal. I told him I would come by to pick it up. It was a done deal. Right? Right?
No, no, no, no, no. I had to TRY. By the time I had driven up to the seller’s home, I decided I would give at least a fleeting attempt to bargain on this. Easier said than done, however. When he came in with the headphones, I was so excited about my deal that I was doing mental cartwheels. My body language couldn’t have been plainer if I was carrying a banner that read “I WANT that headphone. Here’s ALL of my money”.
The seller was a very genial host, who spoke little, and smiled warmly. He handed over the headphone for me to inspect, and just waited patiently. It was crunch time.
“Uhm… I mean – hey, great headphone and all… But your price… err… $140… Is that your last price? Can you go any lower?”
He gave me a look that clearly said “Oh, no, you didn’t. You already agreed to that price. Now you open the pack, test it and THEN talk numbers?”. But not aloud. Aloud, he just sighed as he said – “Look. $140 is a good price. I have people who called and texted me about lower rates. I told them not to bother coming.” He then showed me texts from strangers who tried to haggle, and his curt responses to those chats.
Clearly, he was not one to budge from his price, which – I still concede – was totally reasonable. Well, I tried. It was a long shot anyway. I didn’t want to risk angering the guy and him revoking the deal just to walk off with my precious, now-opened, less unused, beautiful gadget… Ok. I realize now that was pretty unlikely, but at the time, I was just eager to jump on my prize.
I said, “Oh, ok. Fine. I understand. It’s a reasonable price. I’ll take it. Thank you.”
And then, in a surprising move, he said, “You know what – you pay me $125 and we’ll shake on it.”
Wha…? Vic… Victory? Victory! I did it. I tried haggling and emerged victorious! Yipee! Needless to say, dad was proud – The world finally handed me a victory in the haggling arena – But did I deserve it?
Well, clearly, it was a victory awarded out of pity. But I’ll TAKE it! Quickly! Before the world changes its mind.