Back Then...: I can get it for you wholesale

I learned to haggle as a G.I. for Italian souvenirs and, later, on business in Beirut and Cairo for exotic tourist trinkets. The photo and audio gear in Hong Kong was cheaper than anywhere else in the world if you could play the game. I loved tangling wits with these people who assumed everyone was a dumb tourist who would pay the first asking price.

When I first needed a stove and a fridge in America I went to the New Jersey store of "Two Guys from Harrison," the first discounters in my area. The salesman was saying, "You're moving to a new flat? You'll need your own appliances. I'm going to make you a killer offer." He thought the sale was in the bag. What he didn't know was that he was up against the scourge of the bazaar of Istanbul, the destroyer of shopkeepers nerves around the Levant and the Orient.

Harrisons advertised "HUGE" discounts and I was looking to save $100 or more; a week's wages. After initial sparring he quoted me 15 percent off list as though he were handing me the keys to Fort Knox.

"Two Guys from Harrison" left me no room to bluff — I needed what they could quickly deliver, so I hesitatingly used the old Levantine two-step to beat the price down some more. "Take it or leave it" is a risky maneuver, not useful when you really want the offered item. I tried it once in Kowloon on a camera I wasn't sold on, and the guy had the object rung up and wrapped before I could escape.

I now gambled because we were stalemated on the price. I narrowed my eyes, and controlled my voice. "You've got to do better than 15. Twenty-five or I walk. Korvette's is only a phone call away." Of course I had checked other vendors ads before going to Harrison.

With diminishing self assurance, he said, "Don't forget, we have no sales tax over here in New Jersey for out-of-state delivery. You think you'll get these prices from the GE dealer over in Richmond? Just a minute, I have to make a call to my partner, my father-in-law."It was a good sign.

As he spoke to Harrison's other guy, I recalled how appliance sales had until recently been in the hands of franchised dealers where few soft words were spoken before buying. These days it is different, and you have to assume that, unless you are willing to go down on the mat, you are going to get screwed. I will tell you some of my secrets in a future column.

Price-cutting pioneers fought for the right to discount all the way to the Supreme Court. Their ingenuity is still studied in law schools. They completely changed the way we shop and consume.

I could hear the salesman on the phone pleading..."Morey, it's two majors. Yeah, in stock, and I can deliver tomorrow...what? Of course...cash, 20 percent down...I can't go back with a counteroffer, he'll walk. Morey, it's Saturday, and I want to close out my week with a good sale, whattdya say? OK? Yes, no checks. Thanks, I'll recover next week during our blowout sale when we narrow the discounts. By the way, did you know Korvettes is selling in this area now? I'll tell you later." He came back smiling, and we closed the deal after I refused to pay delivery charges.

In retrospect you can judge how far we have regressed by considering sales slogans like, "We will meet any price," "Only one seat left" or "Limited time only." They have little meaning in a new order where civilized old retail structures have been swept away. It's caveat emptor, and devil take the hindmost.

Recently I got a sales flier from a funeral parlor announcing that they would meet any competitor's price for cremations. I am sure that no exchanges or returns are possible, and that all sales are final. There is certainly no lifetime guarantee. Somehow I do not see myself negotiating with this undertaker, or shopping around with his competitors on the phone for a better price, no matter how challenging that could be.

- - -H.C. Klingman can be reached at beckling@embarqmail.com. His column appears every other Friday.

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