Confronting our Agoraphobia, Part IV: The Active Shopper’s Guidebook

(This is the fourth and final part of a series that started with Part I: Carefully Taught, Part II: The Bad Guys are Winning, and Part III: The Long Road Back.)

Let's Get Ready to Rumble! (Or at least have a polite chat.)

If you've been following the Agoraphobia series you may be ready to start shopping actively. However, if you're the average American shopper you're going to be pushing back against a lot of training and momentum trying to convince you that negotiation is difficult, scary, futile, or a waste of time.

It isn't.

Negotiation is, at worst, a conversation with a stranger. But the American consumer has been treated for 150 years like a submissive partner in an abusive relationship. As is the case in many of these situations, learning to speak up for yourself can be difficult at first. So let's assemble a guidebook to help you get started.

Level One Negotiation - learning to talk & think for yourself:

  • For level one, level two, and level three we're talking only about goods, not services. This is about items that you can take home from the store with you.
  • From this point forward, every time you go to the store you will ask the clerks about the products you are purchasing. It doesn't have to be about price. It can be about quality, color, country of origin... just get used to having the conversation. Get to know them. Be friendly and polite.
  • Never enter a shop without a shopping list. Never purchase anything that isn't on the list. Never make the list less than 30 minutes before you enter the store.
  • I've got about 7 local grocers so I can go a bit overboard on this. I cap myself at 3 stores max when comparing grocery circulars.

    If you must pick something up that isn't on your list, shop slowly. Carry it around with you in the store for at least half an hour before making the purchase.

  • Choose your favorite direct-to-vendor shopping site - Ebay, Etsy, or Craigslist. Find something you've been meaning to buy anyhow. Choose a handful of sellers and send them each some questions about the product you intend to purchase before you buy it.
  • Go to the farmer's market closest to you and have a chat with the vendors. Ask at least 3 questions of a vendor before you buy something. And please, do buy something.
  • Pick up grocery circulars from the 3 closest shops. Figure out the least expensive combination of goods, and then compare with how much you'd pay by purchasing everything in your usual store. You don't have to actually do the shopping in split locations. Just do the math. We're practicing here. (PS, if you're in Chicago and only shop at national chain grocers I am sad for you. Check out Tony's, Food4less, Cermak Market, Harvestime, Morse Fresh Market, Mayfair Market Place, Butera and Stanley's for some great alternatives.)

Once you've been at level one for at least 3 months, you're ready to move on to level two.

Level Two Negotiation - price matching:

Keep going with your level one habits, and try a few of these on for size.

  • Treat your wallet like a purchasing department. Anything below, say, $200 can be purchased out of "personal petty cash." Before you purchase any item costing more than that, make a point to do a quick search online to find the best price including shipping. If you're a chicken, you can then buy it online for that price. If not, take that price to a local small business and ask them to match the price.
  • Carry a barcode scanner on your phone and use it to do some in-the-moment price checking and comparison shopping.

    Cell phone comparison shopping chart courtesy of Briabe Media based on a survey of 12,000 mobile users.

  • If you found the level one grocery shopping exercise to be exciting, then take it to the next level. Split your shopping locations to maximize your savings, or ask the clerks at your preferred shop to match the prices in the competing circulars.
  • Start paying attention to which shops pay their clerks on commission and which pay them on an hourly wage. This will be important as we move up to level 3.
  • Start paying attention to when deliveries occur at your local shops. New items inbound frequently means the older items are now ready for discounting.

20 oz Venti Macchiato: $3.65. 128 oz Gallon of milk: $2.65.

  • Learn to either sew, perform basic carpentry, or fix a computer. You will need these skills at level 3.
  • Carry a calculator with you. Before you purchase something at a discount make sure to calculate a) the unit cost and b) the cost per use. After all, shops use many marketing tactics to take advantage of our weak math skills.
  • Money is an arbitrary symbol and stores will use our inability to accurately judge value against us. Find a staple item that you use regularly that you can use as your comparison benchmark. For example, if you know that a gallon of milk is $3.00, then you use that as your grocery store comparison point. It may be easier for you to gauge value by asking yourself if a particular $9 item is really worth the same to you as 3 gallons of milk.
  • Mix and match coupons between stores.
  • Brag to your friends about some of the deals you've gotten.

Again, let's stay at level 2 for the next 3 months for the good habits to take root. If you're itching to start saving more, though, let's move on to Level 3.

Level 3: Asking for it, judging quality

  • Alright, enough practice. If you've been following levels one and two for a while you've probably already snuck over into this level a few times.
  • From now on, when you talk with a clerk you will always discuss the value of the item and, if you feel it is justified, ask for the discount. Politely. Remember, if they give it to you then they may be taking a cut to their own paycheck, especially if they're commissioned.
  • Keep track of your savings over time. Come back and share it with us!
  • If someone tries to rush you to purchase, leave. Come back later. Rushed shoppers are not smart shoppers.
  • Look for items with slight blemishes. Look for refurbs. If you've gained some skill in fixing light amounts of damage it shouldn't matter to you, but it's a huge bargaining chip at the checkout. Ask for a discount for the blemish.
  • Lower your personal petty cash limit for comparison shopping by half. If it was $200 in Level 2, it's now $100.
  • Learn that celebrities, magazines and television exist to sell products first, with entertainment a distant secondary goal. What they do does not matter. What they own does not matter. This is about regaining your independence in the marketplace. Trendiness is the enemy of practicality. Stop trying to keep up with the Kardashians.

Level 4: Service providers and restaurants

  • Once you're comfortable with negotiating over products, it's time to think about how to extend your skills into the service arena. This is a different beast - after all, the price of a given service like a haircut, massage or housekeeping, is based on the skill of the provider and can be pretty immune to comparison shopping. However, there's still negotiation to be had, and once you've been talking to regular retail merchants for a while it gets easier to figure out how to do it.
  • Your comfort level with DIY hairstyling may vary.

    Remember that there are always alternatives to any service provider, right down to doing it yourself or getting a friend to help you. Your might wind up with a simpler hairstyle from the local barber, but chances of them totally butchering your hair are slim. You are paying for convenience, and as the ratings of a provider go up, you are also paying for luxury.

  • Negotiation points on service can include buying in volume (the "frequent flyer" route), bringing new friends with you, or even offering to beta test new items. I had one restaurant owner who knew I'd always bring new friends in. He rewarded me by letting me try new things he wanted to add to the menu.
  • With service providers you'll frequently get a first-timer discount. You probably should not ask for anything above that. However, bear in mind that the provider probably wants more clients and more word of mouth than anything else you could do for them. Do your part - vocally - and you'll have more leverage further down the road.
  • Sometimes being the only person willing to pay full price when everyone else is showing their Groupons can earn you good will that you can leverage later down the road. Remember that negotiation is a conversation, and some of those conversations will go on for a very long time. Some of my best friends over time have been shop clerks and waitresses that I've met through these conversations. You cannot be an anonymous consumer anymore once you start down this road - but the benefits in terms of good contacts and good savings are more than a fair trade for local anonymity.
  • Make a list of all of your recurring subscriptions and utility plans. Contact each of them and negotiate a lower rate.

If you've made it this far, with three months per level, you've now spent a year learning to shop actively. With any luck at least one other person in your family has come along for the ride. Maybe you've saved a little maybe a lot. If you've made a good effort you've probably saved an amount equal to or exceeding one month's rent. I hope you remember us by then. Bookmark us just to be sure, and come on back to share your success with us when you get there!