Want a bargain? Try asking for it

Nobody has to tell Eli Blair it's a buyer's market.

When she makes one of her regular visits to a music store, she always negotiates on price.

“They're pretty willing to cut you a deal,” said the 24-year-old Chicago musician who performs as Ellie May.

Call Blair a neo-haggler, an empowered consumer who feels fine about bargaining. Neo-hagglers don't feel like they're being cheap. They see themselves as smart shoppers who are getting what they want during one of the most unsettling economic periods in decades.

“All you have to do is ask,” advises Blair, who recently snagged a $499 bass guitar for $410 and got a $100 to $150 hard-shell case tossed in.

As neo-hagglers succeed, they are getting bolder, trying their tactics at places they would never have before, such as restaurants, chain stores, boutiques and even therapists' offices.

Their ranks are growing. Half of consumers surveyed in April by BIGresearch reported they have started haggling over auto repairs and appliance and electronics purchases. More recently, nearly 60 percent of Britons surveyed said they are now more likely to try to negotiate discounts than they were a few months ago.

That doesn't surprise Margot Bogue, senior vice president at Chicago advertising agency Cramer-Krasselt. “People are saying, ‘Oh, my God! What is happening?' Their confidence has become rocked,” said Bogue. Cramer-Krasselt is recommending its clients adjust, too, by adopting more flexible- or tiered-pricing systems to give customers the psychic and economic payoff they crave.

Several cultural and economic forces have converged recently to help consumers haggle with more confidence. No. 1 is the Internet, which allows shoppers to research prices, down to the model number and specific add-ons, before heading to a store. Many chains, including Home Depot and Ritz Camera, have low-price guarantees that allow employees to discount prices. Other stores informally do the same thing rather than risk losing a sale.

There's another way the Web has reinforced flexible pricing: the promotional code box that pops up on order forms of e-retailers. You may not have a promotional code on the cover of your catalog, but a quick search for, say, “Restoration Hardware discounts” will connect you to a bevy of sites with codes to try. One of them might work, and the payoff could be anything from 20 percent off list price to free shipping.

The downturn in the U.S. auto industry has played a role as well, marketing experts say. General Motors Corp. has raised the profile of the “employee discount for everyone” through an extensive advertising campaign. Virtually every retailer has an employee discount of some kind, and some shoppers are asking for it.

Of course, some retailers, including many department stores, won't budge on price, and they would frown on employees giving customers their discount.

“We don't negotiate price with our customers,” Elina Kazan, a spokeswoman for Macy's East, said flatly. “Macy's popularized the ‘one price' policy decades ago.”

That doesn't discourage Ashley Thompson, a 21-year-old Maryland resident, who has raised retail haggling to an art.

When a clerk approaches and asks if she needs help, Thompson never asks how much an item costs. She asks, “How much can you give it to me for?”

Typically, the salesperson smiles back and says they'll see what they can do.

“I say, ‘Don't see what you can do. Make it happen,'” Thompson said. “Some of the guys in a clothing store will give you their discount. You can usually tell who you can strike up a deal with.”