By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/15/2009 4:01:03 PM ET 2009-04-15T20:01:03

Haggle over the price? Are you kidding? I couldn’t do that, I’d feel foolish.

Does this sound like you? If you want to save money, you’d better get over it. The old art of haggling is making a comeback.

And in this economy many companies, big and small, are willing to negotiate to make the sale.

"It works so well," says Lisa Lee Freeman, editor in chief of Shop Smart magazine. "It doesn't work every time, but my philosophy is: If you don't ask, you don't get. And when you get, you can save hundreds of dollars."

Freeman gave me this personal example. When shopping for shoes, she told the salesperson she would buy three pairs if she could get a 15 percent discount. Not only did she get the deal on the shoes, but the salesperson gave her 15 percent off the blouse she was buying.

Most people don’t think twice about bargaining for a car or house, but you can do the same thing with other products and services. Consumer Reports says hagglers are often successful. A survey conducted by Consumer Reports found that more than 90 percent of those who tried to negotiate a better deal on furniture, electronics, appliances, even medical bills – say they got one.

“People think there is little wiggle room when it comes to things like medical and cable television bills,” notes Consumer Reports senior editor Tod Marks. “But if you’re willing to risk rejection, the rewards can pay off handsomely.”

John Hoag of Seattle can testify to that. Hoag thought his cable bill was too high. So he called the company and told the customer service agent he wouldn’t pay that much any longer. She immediately agreed to lower his bill by $40 a month for the next year. That one phone called saved him almost $500.

"It was easy, real easy,” he says. “In fact, there wasn't even any haggling. It was just a discussion.”

Lots of people are doing it
I can’t believe how many people in my office have negotiated price breaks recently. One co-worker called his cell phone company and said he was paying too much. He didn’t threaten to cancel, just asked what could be done. In just a few minutes, they cut his bill by $25 a month.

Another colleague got a sweet deal on a garment bag and he wasn’t even trying to negotiate. Rich was in a downtown Seattle luggage store. He found a bag he liked but the $100 was more than he wanted to pay, so he headed toward the door. The salesman said, “What about $50?” Rich responded, “How about $45?” And to his surprise, the salesman said, “Done.”

It works at chain stores
I think a lot of us, and I include myself in this group, feel uncomfortable or self-conscious trying to negotiate a better deal at a department or appliance store. And yet, it’s done all the time.

My friend Brian saved a ton of money on a new washer and dryer from Best Buy. He found the models he wanted but felt the price was too high. Brian found the appliance manager and asked him if he could do anything.

As Brian tells it, “He goes over to his computer and comes back and says, ‘I could knock a couple of hundred off of it.’ And I said, ‘that’s not really good enough.’ ”

Brian figured that was it, but the manager came back with a better deal. He discounted the price by $400.

“I never expected to walk into a big box store and haggle the price down like that,” Brian says. Apparently his timing was right. Brian says after the sale, the manager told him it was a pretty slow week and he needed to move merchandise.

Curious about this transaction, I contacted Best Buy. In an e-mail the company said, “It isn't our common practice to negotiate pricing” even though managers “are empowered to react to local market needs …”

Give it a try
Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org believes everyone should re-evaluate their primary services: credit cards, banking, cable and cell phone plans. “You signed up for a package of services when you first got these things,” he says. “They’ve changed.”

Your phone call should go something like this: “I’m a pretty good customer and I see you’re offering a lower percentage rate on your credit card or a better plan for cell calling than I have. What can you do for me?”

If you get “no” for an answer call back and talk to someone else. Get a second opinion. If you’re turned down again and you feel strongly that you’re not getting the best price, tell them you’re going to cancel. “As soon as you say that, you may be switched to the retentions department,” Dworsky explains. “They are authorized to offer you some sweeteners to try to keep you as a customer.”

Haggling takes practice
Shop Smart’s Lisa Lee Freeman tells me the more you haggle, the more surprised you'll be at how well it works.

Here’s a good way to start. Check prices online. This will help you know a good price when you see it. Take a printout of those prices to the store. Many retailers won’t match Internet prices, but it still gives you more firepower at the store.

If the salesperson won't budge on price, see if the store will throw in some extras. Maybe you can get free delivery or free installation.

Freeman says you must be willing to walk away if you're going to haggle. If you're not, it's much harder to negotiate.

"Don't be afraid. Give it a shot,” she says. “You're not always going to get a break, but when you do, it's really going to pay off.

When my nephew David went looking for an engagement ring recently, I told him to ask the salesperson if there was anything he or she could do for him before he paid for the ring. He did and got a 5 percent discount that saved him $300.

Bottom line: You can't get if you don't ask.

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