Teach me how haggling works
September 10, 2013 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Dear mefites: please steer me to some good fictional (and preferably entertaining) depictions of haggling.

So, yesterday I was in a used bookstore and noticed the four slipcased volumes of Absolute Sandman. There was no price on them and I inquired idly as to the asking price. The clerk said they had just come in yesterday and had not been priced. He went online, checked the original price new, checked what they were going for used on Amazon, and set a price on the spot. I thought it was a little out of my reach, so I passed; the clerk's response was, "Well, haggle!" I was taken aback and tossed out a price about three-quarters of what he asked and he declared, "Sold!" I now have a complete run of gorgeous oversized hardcover Sandman sitting next to me.

Anyway, all this to say that I really know nothing about haggling and while I don't intend to take it up as a regular way to argue with merchants, it occurs to em that except for the infamous scene in Life of Brian, I never even really see it. Are there any good scenes (on screen or in print) that people can steer me to as good depictions of it?
posted by ricochet biscuit to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Any of the pawn shop shows on TV these days, like Pawn Stars, and to a lesser extent, Hardcore Pawn, etc. - are rife with haggling. It's debatable whether they actually depict live, unscripted haggle sessions, but it's still pretty close to reality in my experience.
posted by SquidLips at 11:55 AM on September 10, 2013

When haggling for items at a market (let's say at the Otavalo Indian market in Ecuador), I always have an idea of how much in my head is what I think is a fair and honest price. I hear what the seller has to say and start with about a 60% discount and go from there, going back and forth at least two or three times. I usually end up paying about 25% or more less than the starting cost.

If it's more than I'm willing to pay after a few minutes, I'll walk away with a smile and thank you. If they come after you, there's still room to negotiate. If not, then the transaction is over.

More likely than not, I have a lot more in my bank account than the person I'm haggling with. If I can live with a dollar or two more that what I was originally willing to pay, I'm okay with that if it means that I get to go home with something I really want and her kids get an extra bunch of bananas this week.
posted by HeyAllie at 11:57 AM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Believe it or not, the show Pawn Stars is a wealth of these moments. If it's not completely scripted (which some people believe), it's clear after watching a handful of episodes that the pawn shop employees are extremely good at paying the least for any object that the seller is willing to accept, and often well below value. There are a lot of tricks to avoid, and it shows how important a starting offer is in setting the eventual price. Here's someone's comedic version of the normal process, which isn't far off from how it tends to go down.
posted by Partial Law at 11:59 AM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

This clip from True Grit?
posted by rustcrumb at 12:18 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

The book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has a great scene of the mother haggling with a Jewish hatshop proprietor in turn of the (20th) century New York. Not sure exactly where it is in the book, but probably somewhere in the middle third or so.
posted by lunasol at 12:24 PM on September 10, 2013

Haggling for Hotdogs is an interesting true-life piece, where Tom Chiarella of Esquire decides to try and negotiate the price of everything he wants for 3 months. It gives you the view of someone who learns how to haggle, starting off like a jerk trying to haggle with the hotdog vendor before he realizes there are guidelines to haggling.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:26 PM on September 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

I like this anecdote.
posted by martinrebas at 12:37 PM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's the Christmas tree-buying scene from A Christmas Story.
posted by usonian at 12:54 PM on September 10, 2013

I couldn't find a clip, but there's an episode of M*A*S*H that I thought of right away. (This would be a bad example of haggling.)

sculptor Cho: [Frank and Hot Lips want a wooden bust of Colonel Potter carved]
Hmm. Lotsa work. Two assistants. Electric light at night. Overtime.
Hmm. Six bucks.
Maj. Frank Burns: [unsure] Well...
Maj. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan: Frank, These people have no
espect-ray unless you aggle-hay over the ice-pray.
Maj. Frank Burns: Five dollars.
Cho: Seven-fifty.
Maj. Frank Burns: Sold!
Maj. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan: [glares at Frank] Umb-day!

Oh, also -- the show American Pickers is basically all haggling.
posted by mefireader at 1:34 PM on September 10, 2013

Tamora Pierce's "Daja's Book" from the Magic Circle series focuses on a Trader character and Trader society (the equivalent of the Roma people in our world), and features not just the back-and-forth of haggling, but the preparations required to make a trade for an item of great value vs. trading for an item of low value with a low-status person.
posted by epj at 1:51 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

While Black Books probably isn't a good source for "effective" examples of anything, here is an amusing and quick clip of haggling from the show.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 3:36 PM on September 10, 2013

The haggling scene in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is fun! I can't find a clip, but essentially, Bill Nighy and Judi Dench are at a market in India. She wants to buy something (a piece of silk, I think), but Bill says she has to haggle. He insists and starts offering prices, and when the seller balks, Bill makes Judi walk away, saying that the seller is playing hard to get....reeeeeeeeeally hard to get, because, any minute now, he'll start coming after them...and they keep walking and it cuts to Judi back at the stall buying the silk for full price because she really did want it.
posted by firei at 3:58 PM on September 10, 2013

Tara Bahrampour writes in her memoir about her Iranian relatives' haggling when they come to the US.
posted by brujita at 5:59 PM on September 10, 2013

The excerpts below are from Anthony Trollope’s The Kellys and the O’Kellys. The two characters are Frank (Lord Ballandine) and his friend Mr. Dot Blake, a horse racing expert and bookmaker. Frank needs to dispose of his race horses both to stay in his fiancee's good graces and because he can't afford to run them.

"But then, about these horses, Dot. I wish I could sell them, out and out, at once."

"You'll find it very difficult to get anything like the value for a horse that's well up for the Derby. You see, a purchaser must make up his mind to so much outlay: there's the purchase-money, and expense of English training, with so remote a chance of any speedy return."

"But you said you'd advise me to sell them."

"That's if you can get a purchaser:--or else run them in another name. You may run them in my name, if you like it; but Scott must understand that I've nothing whatever to do with the expense."

"Would you not buy them yourself, Blake?"

"No. I would not."

"Why not?"

"If I gave you anything like the value for them, the bargain would not suit me; and if I got them for what they'd be worth to me, you'd think, and other people would say, that I'd robbed you."

Then followed a lengthened and most intricate discourse on the affairs of the stable. Frank much wanted his friend to take his stud entirely off his hands, but this Dot resolutely refused to do. In the course of conversation, Frank owned that the present state of his funds rendered it almost impracticable for him to incur the expense of sending his favourite, Brien Boru, to win laurels in England. He had lost nearly three hundred pounds the previous evening which his account at his banker's did not enable him to pay; his Dublin agent had declined advancing him more money at present, and his tradesmen were very importunate. In fact, he was in a scrape, and Dot must advise him how to extricate himself from it.

"I'll tell you the truth, Ballindine," said he; "as far as I'm concerned myself, I never will lend money, except where I see, as a matter of business, that it is a good speculation to do so. I wouldn't do it for my father."

"Who asked you?" said Frank, turning very red, and looking very angry.

"You did not, certainly; but I thought you might, and you would have been annoyed when I refused you; now, you have the power of being indignant, instead. However, having said so much, I'll tell you what I think you should do, and what I will do to relieve you, as far as the horses are concerned. Do you go down to Kelly's Court, and remain there quiet for a time. You'll be able to borrow what money you absolutely want down there, if the Dublin fellows actually refuse; but do with as little as you can. The horses shall run in my name for twelve months. If they win, I will divide with you at the end of the year the amount won, after deducting their expenses. If they lose, I will charge you with half the amount lost, including the expenses. Should you not feel inclined, at the end of the year, to repay me this sum, I will then keep the horses, instead, or sell them at Dycer's, if you like it better, and hand you the balance if there be any. What do you say to this? You will be released from all trouble, annoyance, and expense, and the cattle will, I trust, be in good hands."

"That is to say, that, for one year, you are to possess one half of whatever value the horses may be?"

"Exactly: we shall be partners for one year."

"To make that fair," said Frank, "you ought to put into the concern three horses, as good and as valuable as my three."

"Yes; and you ought to bring into the concern half the capital to be expended in their training; and knowledge, experience, and skill in making use of them, equal to mine. No, Frank; you're mistaken if you think that I can afford to give up my time, merely for the purpose of making an arrangement to save you from trouble."

"Upon my word, Dot," answered the other, "you're about the coolest hand I ever met! Did I ask you for your precious time, or anything else? You're always afraid that you're going to be done. Now, you might make a distinction between me and some of your other friends, and remember that I am not in the habit of doing anybody."

"Why, I own I don't think it very likely that I, or indeed anyone else, should suffer much from you in that way, for your sin is not too much sharpness."

"Then why do you talk about what you can afford to do?"

"Because it's necessary. I made a proposal which you thought an unfair one. You mayn't believe me, but it is a most positive fact, that my only object in making that proposal was, to benefit you. You will find it difficult to get rid of your horses on any terms; and yet, with the very great stake before you in Miss Wyndham's fortune, it would be foolish in you to think of keeping them; and, on this account, I thought in what manner I could take them from you. If they belong to my stables I shall consider myself bound to run them to the best advantage, and"--

"Well, well--for heaven's sake don't speechify about it."

"Stop a moment, Frank, and listen, for I must make you understand. I must make you see that I am not taking advantage of your position, and trying to rob my own friend in my own house. I don't care what most people say of me, for in my career I must expect people to lie of me. I must, also, take care of myself. But I do wish you to know, that though I could not disarrange my schemes for you, I would not take you in."

"Why, Dot--how can you go on so? I only thought I was taking a leaf out of your book, by being careful to make the best bargain I could."

"Well, as I was saying--I would run the horses to the best advantage--especially Brien, for the Derby: by doing so, my whole book would be upset: I should have to bet all round again--and, very likely, not be able to get the bets I want. I could not do this without a very strong interest in the horse. Besides, you remember that I should have to go over with him to England myself, and that I should be obliged to be in England a great deal at a time when my own business would require me here."

"My dear fellow," said Frank, "you're going on as though it were necessary to defend yourself. I never accused you of anything."

"Never mind whether you did or no. You understand me now: if it will suit you, you can take my offer, but I should be glad to know at once."

"I'll tell you what I'll do, Dot," he said, when he met his friend coming in from his morning's work; "and I'm deuced sorry to do it, for I shall be giving you the best horse of his year, and something tells me he'll win the Derby."

"I suppose 'something' means old Jack Igoe, or that blackguard Grady," said Dot. "But as to his winning, that's as it may be. You know the chances are sixteen to one he won't."

"Upon my honour I don't think they are."

"Will you take twelve to one?"

"Ah! You know, Dot, I'm not now wanting to bet on the horse with you. I was only saying that I've a kind of inward conviction that he will win."

"My dear Frank," said the other, "if men selling horses could also sell their inward convictions with them, what a lot of articles of that description there would be in the market! But what were you going to say you'd do?"

"I'll tell you what I'll do: I'll agree to your terms providing you'll pay half the expenses of the horses since the last race each of them ran. You must see that would be only fair, supposing the horses belonged to you, equally with me, ever since that time."

"It would be quite fair, no doubt, if I agreed to it: it would be quite fair also if I agreed to give you five hundred pounds; but I will do neither one nor the other."

"But look here, Dot--Brien ran for the Autumn Produce Stakes last October, and won them: since then he has done nothing to reimburse me for his expense, nor yet has anything been taken out of him by running. Surely, if you are to have half the profits, you should at any rate pay half the expenses?"

"That's very well put, Frank; and if you and I stood upon equal ground, with an arbiter between us by whose decision we were bound to abide, and to whom the settlement of the question was entrusted, your arguments would, no doubt, be successful, but--"

"Well that's the fair way of looking at it."

"But, as I was going to say, that's not the case. We are neither of us bound to take any one's decision; and, therefore, any terms which either of us chooses to accept must be fair. Now I have told you my terms--the lowest price, if you like to call it so,--at which I will give your horses the benefit of my experience, and save you from their immediate pecuniary pressure; and I will neither take any other terms, nor will I press these on you."

Poor Frank!--he was utterly unable to cope with his friend at the weapons with which they were playing, and he was consequently most egregiously plundered. But it was in an affair of horse-flesh, and the sporting world, when it learned the terms on which the horses were transferred from Lord Ballindine's name to that of Mr Blake, had not a word of censure to utter against the latter. He was pronounced to be very wide awake, and decidedly at the top of his profession; and Lord Ballindine was spoken of, for a week, with considerable pity and contempt.
posted by timeo danaos at 6:28 PM on September 10, 2013

There is the example of Abraham bargaining with God for the sake of Sodom, found in Genesis 18:20 to :33. Or, as I think Mort Sahl once put it, "The lesson of that story isn't that there weren't even 10 righteous men in Sodom, or that God could be so offended by a place, it's that Abraham, nothing more than dust of the earth by his own pleading, got God down to 10!"
posted by paulsc at 7:05 PM on September 10, 2013

Ideally I'd link the video, but I can't find it on Youtube, so I'm linking the transcript instead which doesn't have the same level of humour. But anyway, a Kids in the Hall sketch entitled Stereo Bargaining.
posted by to recite so charmingly at 7:46 PM on September 10, 2013

The character of Silk/Kheldar in David Eddings' fantasy novels (the 5 volume Belgariad is the first cycle, the 5 volume Malloreon is the second) is defined by his ability to haggle, persuade, manipulate, and convince, complete with secret spy sign language and a raft of personae to accrue best advantage in a given situation. I find him quite entertaining.
posted by Errant at 10:21 PM on September 10, 2013

The absolute best depiction I've seen is the BBC show Bargain Hunt. Might be a little tough to find episodes to watch outside of the UK, but I think it's worth it if you want to see some real haggling action.

Any of the pawn shop shows on TV these days, like Pawn Stars, and to a lesser extent, Hardcore Pawn, etc. - are rife with haggling. It's debatable whether they actually depict live, unscripted haggle sessions, but it's still pretty close to reality in my experience.

I agree. I can't recall any of the haggling scenes on Pawn Stars being too outlandish or scripted, especially if you consider that the sellers have been pre-screened weeks in advance and that the buyers have more knowledge coming into it than the show implies. Most of the negotiations go on for much longer than anything I've personally encountered.
posted by clorox at 3:56 AM on September 11, 2013

American Pickers is good on this topic. Even if it's pre-scripted, you get a pretty clear idea of relative asking prices, fair but not insulting counter-offers, and how the process of arriving at a mutually agreeable price works. I've noticed that in many foreign countries--in the Mideast, Africa, Latin America--the haggling process is quite friendly and entertaining: a real social occasion. If you can get over being nervous about it, and feeling scared of getting ripped off, it can be a real pleasure and an entre into others' culture.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:04 AM on September 11, 2013

I think that one of the principal rules of haggling is that you are willing to walk away with nothing and would call that a successful transaction.

I'll tell you an anecdote: I was in India for business and it was very hot and I get very sunburnt very easily. A roadside stand was selling baseball caps for about a dollar, and I really wanted that shade for my face. My Indian friend insisted that we haggle and he asked for 2 hats for that one price. Lots of arguing, and the seller ultimately refused the deal, and I got sunburned. For the refusal to pay an extra 50 cents. But my friend insisted that he won that transaction because he did not let the seller take advantage of us. We bought a hat later (too late) at another stand for $2. The whole thing made me so angry for weeks, that I left the hat in the hotel room when I checked out and went home, just so I wouldn't always be reminded of it.

And another one, same trip in India: my daughter wanted me to bring her back a specific color/pattern/size of scarf. I looked and looked for days in many shops. I finally found exactly what she wanted for about 12 dollars. A different Indian friend insisted that we haggle and spent a very long time trying to get that price down. "You could buy an entire sari outfit for that price; just a scarf is a ripoff." I don't care. It took a long time to find and it was exactly what I wanted and it was only 12 dollars, which by the way was actually a sticker on multiple packages; the seller did not just make up the price out of nowhere. I got the scarf; my daughter still wears it 10 years later. My friend still thinks that I lost in that transaction.
posted by CathyG at 8:03 PM on September 11, 2013

If you interested in what is empirically supported as effective haggling technique, I conducted the survey that served as the basis for this article in the August issue of Consumer Reports.
posted by Fuego at 1:12 PM on September 12, 2013

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