Princess and the plea: negotiating the city

Leslie LevinBy Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
March 1, 2001

Spoiled brat or savvy negotiator? You be the judge.

Lara Davidson has never had to change a broken headlight. Nor put together an easy-to-assemble desk. Nor hook up her home entertainment center. She has always found someone to do it for her. What Davidson, 27, learned early on was that with a little negotiating, she could be more successful in her day-to-day maneuvering than her more meek pals, who were too intimidated to ask for special attention.

”Some of my friends call me a princess,” says Davidson, an actress who lives in the Old Irving Park neighborhood. ”I don’t think I’m a brat. If a boyfriend offers to do something for me, I’ll accept his offer. if the mechanic who changes my oil is willing to replace my broken headlight while he’s at it, then I’ll take him up on it.

”But I don’t just take. I’ll tip the mechanic, and I’ll housesit or cook dinners for friends who do me favors. I’ve even done friends’ taxes for them, since I used to be an accountant, and it’s no big deal for me.”

A big tip for negotiating in the big city: If you don’t ask, you’ll never know what you can get.

For instance, how many times have you bought a dozen eggs only to find that they expired before you had a chance to use them all? The next time you go to the grocery store, ask a clerk to cut the carton in half. Sure, the cost per egg for half a dozen will come to more than if you bought the entire package. But you’ll still spend less and won’t have those rotten eggs pulling a guilt trip.

Ask and ye might receive

For most Americans, bartering is not a part of everyday life. We don’t like to question prices. Haggling over a car purchase is one thing. But a winter coat? The fact is the price tag isn’t necessarily the store’s final answer. If they can get what they are asking for, of course, the shop will be happy to take your money. But there may be room for bargaining.

”I was looking at some items at department store once and found a really cute two-piece jumper set for a baby,” says Lee Stone, 45, of Lincoln Park. ”The price was already pretty reasonable, but I noticed that the shirt size was different from the pants that came with it.

”I asked the saleswoman if I could get another comparable shirt, or if they could mark it down a little more since it was mismatched. She said no. I then asked if I could speak to a manager. The manager was as nice as could be and said they would mark it down for me. So I saved an additional $10 just by asking.”

Corey Sandler, author of Buy More Pay Less (Prentice Hall, $20), says more consumers should follow Stone’s lead.

”I’m not advising people to be unreasonable and ask stores to take losses on items,” Sandler says. ”But they have entire floors of accountants whose jobs are to figure out how to get the most for the bottom line. Why can’t you, as a customer, pay attention to your own bottom line? Those of us who are willing to ask are subsidized by those who don’t.”

Getting a deal is not the ordeal some might imagine, either. Michael discovered this when he was looking for a cab at O’Hare.

”I asked at the airport courtesy desk about getting a cab,” says the Glendale Heights resident. ‘They advised me to call for a cab company that would have a flat rate instead of the fare-and-a-half rate some of the taxi services charge to drive to certain suburbs. It took maybe a minute to make the call, and I ended up paying a lot less than I would’ve if I had just gotten into the first available cab.”

Make a courtesy call

Leslie Levine, author of Ice Cream For Breakfast: If You Follow All the Rules, You Miss Half the Fun (Contemporary Books, $17.95), says courtesy is the key to negotiating through everyday life. Calmly explain what you need, and the other party is more likely to want to help you than if you threaten or cause a scene. In other words, be a polite squeaky wheel.

Case in point: Levine had problems with her computer’s disk drive. As a writer, she worried that her lifeline would be cut off if she were without her computer for more than the week it would take to complete the repairs.

So she talked to the store’s technician. Later, she dropped by with a box of Frango mints.

”Instead of being computerless for a couple of weeks, he arranged for me to bring the computer in so he could see what parts he needed to replace, and then he sent me back home with it,” Levine says. ”When the parts came in, I brought the computer back, and he made all the repairs and sent me back home with the fixed computer. I was never without it for more than a couple hours.

”What I’ve found is people are more than willing to help you make things easier. But you just have to treat them with the same respect that you yourself would like to receive.”

Establishing relationships at places you frequent can be beneficial, too. Say a kind word to your butcher and he’ll be more likely to give you the freshest cuts of meats without your having to even ask.

Form alliances with your favorite salespeople, and they’ll alert you to hold off on certain purchases until their upcoming sale dates. Ask your landlord if you could mow the lawn or shovel snow for a rent break.

And let folks know when they’ve done good jobs, not just when they’ve let you down. They’ll be more likely to come to your assistance when you need it, and that will make negotiating the city a much more pleasant experience.

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