7.31.2011

the only good bargaining is collective bargaining

From time to time, I sell things on Craigslist and Kijiji. I've given away scads of things on Freecycle, including, when we were packing up to move to Canada, a huge air conditioner, bedroom furniture, a couch, and other items considered gems by Freecyclers. But right now money is tight and I'm not feeling as generous, so I go the Craigslist/Kijiji route. I get rid of stuff we don't need, someone gets a good deal, and I get a little extra cash. Everyone wins.

Bargaining sucks

My constant irritant is The Bargainers. I dislike bargaining and I don't want to do it. I include the phrase "price is firm" in my ad, but that doesn't stop the Bargainers. Some are polite: "Would you accept $40?". Many are downright demanding: "I will pay $30. Give me your phone number.". I don't care. The more they insist, the less I want to play the game.


The whole concept of bargaining runs counter to my preference for direct communication. First, state a fictitious price, merely a device used to begin an opaque but predictable process. The "real" price is obscured. The two parties engage in... what, exactly? A predictable dance? A test of wills? A bit of theatre? All of the above? To my mind, it's a useless exercise. When I shop, I want to know the price of an item - the real price - then I can decide whether or not I want to buy it.

It's not that I don't understand the language of bargaining or don't know how it's done. I have bargained successfully in the past. I don't wear a watch, and before the advent of cell phones, I used to carry a very small travel clock, similar to this. I'd buy them in one of the many cheap electronic stores that used to fill midtown Manhattan. Typically, there were the posted prices - also known as "tourist prices" - and the real prices, which were never posted. I could always buy a little clock for $20. Sometimes the posted price was as high as $35 or $40, but I could always get one for $20. In those days, I found it kind of fun, a cheap thrill, an affirmation of my status as Real New Yorker. So it's not that I can't bargain. I just wish no one did it. These days, even if I lived near a little electronic shop filled with tourist prices, I'd go to Best Buy, where the price is the price. (Although many people would dispute even that. Among the zillions of books and websites preaching Thou Shalt Haggle, there are even instructions on how to haggle at chain stores.) To some people, a lowered price is an accomplishment worth any amount of time. I want to go in, buy what I need, and get out.

I understand that for some people, there is a cultural imperative to haggle. But there's no law that says I have to adopt other people's cultural practices. Many people claim that in certain countries, one is expected to bargain, a supposed truism most budget-travel guides emphasize. But is it necessary? Is it fair? In Peru, we saw hundreds of people selling the exact same item. In a glutted market, prices were ridiculously low. Our dollars went so far there, we could afford anything we wanted. Perhaps the price after bargaining would be $5 or $10 less. In the context of how much money we spent on that trip - in context of our privilege of travel - that is a pittance. But to the seller, an extra 15 or 20 nuevo soles could make a very real difference. If someone wants to laugh at the gringa who paid the asking price, why should that bother me? (In Peru, I don't think anyone thought us fools. I think rich, haggling tourists were regarded with annoyance. But perhaps I was projecting.)

One day we may travel in a country where I'd be truly foolish not to bargain. But that country is not Mississauga. With my Craigslist sales, it's gotten to the point where I obstinately refuse to bargain. It would be simpler just to slightly raise my asking price, then take the Bargainer's offer. But I'm incredibly - irrationally - resistant to this. The more insistent and demanding the Bargainer, the more I resist.

I am selling an Oreck steam iron. It is brand new, been used once. It retails for $50 or $60. I am asking $25. Here's a recent exchange, copied and pasted unedited from my emails.

Bargainer: $15 cash and will pick it up tonight call me thanks

Me: Thank you for your email. The price is firm at $25. Please let me know if you are still interested.

Bargainer: i'm a serious buyer will be there tonight $20 cash final offer [He repeats "cash" as if there is some other means of purchasing items on Craigslist.]

Me: I'm sorry if anything in my email gave you the impression I am bargaining. The price is firm at $25. Thank you.

Bargainer: i only have $20 but i will be there tonight what is your address

I didn't reply. I felt like raising the price to $30.

I recently sold a piece of exercise equipment for $50. A prospective buyer asked, "Would you accept $40?" I replied, "No thank you, the price is firm at $50. Let me know if you are still interested." She was. She pulled up to the house in a BMW, and took cash out of a Coach wallet, her hand well-manicured and glistening with bling. But she tried to get $10 off the asking price.

A long time ago, when I was newer to Canada, I blogged about the indirect communication I was sensing from co-workers and neighbours. I like people to say what they mean, and mean what they say. Good or bad will between neighbours shouldn't depend on following a secret code, especially if we have no idea if we're even carrying the same codebook. The price of an item shouldn't depend on my ability to wrench a different price out of the seller.

Collective bargaining is the opposite of haggling

Neither should my salary. Widening the lens, when you work in a private-sector, non-unionized environment as I do, a similar dynamic exists during the interview process. Prospective employers want to know your "salary expectations". You try to aim high, expecting to be low-balled. I have managed to wring a few extra dollars out of an employer, then was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement, so my co-workers wouldn't know how badly they were getting screwed. (I violated it.) I have an idea. Tell me what the job pays for someone with my level of experience. Pay everyone with the same job with the same level of experience the same pay.


I recently reviewed the collective bargaining agreement between CUPE Local 966 and the Mississauga Library System. You know what the best part of that agreement is? The fact that it exists. The fact that a bunch of people representing all the employees and a bunch of people representing the employer sat down together and hammered out a contract that both parties can live with. Neither party, presumably, got everything it wanted. Both parties, presumably, feel satisfied with the results. And those results are there for all to see. The codebook is public information. And because it is, when I am hired by the Mississauga Library System, my salary won't depend on my ability to talk the Library into an extra dollar an hour, and to get that extra dollar I won't have to give up half my benefits. I won't have to face my employer alone, each of my co-workers equally alone, each of us fumbling in the dark, forced to take whatever the employer offers, fooled into believing it's the best possible deal, cowed into believing we're lucky just to have jobs. My pay and benefits will all be known in advance, and will have been negotiated in part by someone representing my own interests.

When I was writing professionally, whenever I'd balk at some horrible rights-grabbing contract, I always heard the same thing: No one else has complained. All our other writers have signed this. No one has ever mentioned this is a problem. We had no idea. Every single editor or publisher I worked with said this. Too bad for them that I belonged to the National Writers Union. I already knew that hundreds, maybe thousands, of writers had complained, had refused to sign, had insisted on changing language. I knew I wasn't alone, so it was easier to stand my ground. I didn't always win, but it was always worth trying - for myself and for all the other writers who were also trying to negotiate more equitable contracts.

Alone, we are helpless. What leverage did I have against Time Warner Media or Hearst Communications? The same leverage I have with my current employer: none. As a group, united - or even armed with a bit of information - we might be able to win a bit of justice.

It's one thing to hear employers bad-mouth unions. If it weren't for organized labour, employers wouldn't be bothered with profit-draining bits of socialism, like weekends, paid holidays, workplace safety provisions and a minimum wage. I understand why they don't like unions. But when I hear working people parrot the "unions were once necessary but they've outlived their usefulness" line, I want to scream. Apparently they don't understand that if it hadn't been for the labour movement, we'd be living in those "once necessary" times right now. Much of the world still is. Labour unions are needed - right now, right here, in North America - as much as they were in the 1920s or the 1850s: a fact Ikea has just learned, Rite Aid has learned and Starbucks may soon learn.

* * * *

Update on haggling. After chatting in comments, I feel I may have failed to make my central point. The reason I dislike haggling isn't the attitude of hagglers - it's the unfairness to the buyer. I want everyone to be offered the same price for the same product, regardless ability or inclination to haggle. As Allan put it: People who are shy or hesitant are penalized for who they are. They may end up paying more for items and also earn less at their jobs.

24 comments:

johngoldfine said...

I'm going to read this again, even more carefully, and see if I have other comments, maybe about collective bargaining. It's a fine post!

But I have to say I can't agree about haggling. Certainly the examples you give of online hagglers are egregious--that's not bargaining as I understand it, but rudeness, obnoxious pushiness, and refusal to listen.

But when I go into a hotel at 8 pm, am quoted the rack rate, and ask for a discount or ask to talk to the manager about the rate--is that haggling or is it your $20 clock? Almost invariably, at least overseas where I do most of my hotel-staying, I get half knocked off the first-quoted rate--not by being a noodge or an asshole but by simply asking if they will take a lower sum. If they say, no, fine, no arguments from me. If they offer a sum that's lower but not low enough for my budget, I thank them for their time and trouble and disappear into the night without further ado.

laura k said...

Thanks, John. I may have written unclearly, but my issue isn't with the relative obnoxiousness of hagglers. It's with the existence of the process itself. I want everyone who goes into that motel to be offered the same price for the same product, regardless of her or his ability or inclination to haggle. And I don't expect many people to agree w me! People love to haggle!

johngoldfine said...

Here's a story of collective bargaining that devolved into undignified haggling. I was on a negotiating team years ago. Management had very little to offer us, but we pointed out that they could pay us the same, have us teach the same number of days--but cut back on the administrative days that were a holdover from the high school mentality in force when the system was founded.

Over a couple of contract cycles, we reduced 8 administrative days to 3.

Then a new administrator came up with the idea of breaking a day into eight hours and spreading those eight hours out over several more than the three days allowed by the contract. This administrator is new, is constitutionally unable to admit a mistake, and had no idea of the history of this issue--not that history would help someone incapable of looking on a calendar and seeing what a day is.

So, we had conversations about definitions of 'days' and were met with haughty lectures and insults about faculty being lazy, unwilling, unprofessional, burned out, etc. In the end, the unambiguous language of the contract prevailed, but not before we had gone through that long charade of humbly presenting our case and trying to 'get' something from the administrator that was ours all along. It was degrading!

Not to mention infuriating--as if we would ever have signed a contract that allowed management to redefine a day as 'eight work hours spread out over as many separate calendar days as administrators like.'

allan said...

In Peru, we saw hundreds of people selling the exact same item. In a glutted market, prices were ridiculously low.

We saw it everywhere -- Sweater Seller A sees a tourist checking out Seller B's sweaters and says she can sell the same sweater for $2 less. Better that than no sale, right? ... So you've got the two women lowering their prices (which as L said are so low to begin with!), racing to devalue their talent, trying to make any kind of sale at all.

Meanwhile, the tourist is so fucking pleased with himself, ignorant that his "success" at talking her down the equivalent of 75 cents or $1.25 is literally taking food off this woman's table.

I want everyone who goes into that motel to be offered the same price for the same product, regardless of her or his ability or inclination to haggle.

This is an important point. People who are shy or hesitant are penalized for who they are. They may end up paying more for items and also earn less at their jobs.

laura k said...

I'm not sure it even counts as haggling if you're not bargaining in good faith.

Nitangae said...

"Meanwhile, the tourist is so fucking pleased with himself, ignorant that his "success" at talking her down the equivalent of 75 cents or $1.25 is literally taking food off this woman's table."

Possibly. I don't know Peru at all but I imagine that the traders a) know each other b) Set the prices while speaking Queachua (evading the tourist who tries to employ Spanish), c) have generations of experience in bargaining, as well as considerable personal experience. I don't fancy the odds of the middle-class tourist from Germany or Canada under those circumstances. That is how it works in many other countries, anyway. On the other hand, I agree that for the tiny amounts of money that a tourist is saving, bargaining is a waste of time - let the Peruvian trader laugh at you while she also puts money into her child's university tuition. If you like, call it reparations for the Drug War, Western-backed dictators and the IMF.

The pleasure of bargaining is a bit like the pleasure of shopping. I don't much enjoy it either, partly because I am not good at it. If I go to a place where people expect to bargain, then I know I will pay twice what I should even if I do bargain (and the happy smile of the merchant who says - " you have absolutely destroyed me financially!" isn't fooling me!")

On the other hand, I save money at places where bargaining is expected (say Dongdaemun outdoor market in Seoul) even if I don't bargain, over the downtown shopping centers in Seoul where the prices are deliberately raised so that the purchasers may feel the warm buzz that comes with having more money than they need

laura k said...

Nitangae, what you're saying may be true in many places, I wouldn't know, but it's not in Peru. There, most of the women selling sweaters, bottled water and bananas were farmers a few decades ago. They were forced off their farms into village or city life by violence (Shining Path, then indiscriminate government violence purportedly against Shining Path, where any village thought to have sheltered a terrorist could be massacred). There is very little economy to support them. Their children go to school to learn other languages and work in the tourist trade. Selling sweaters and water/bananas is kind of last resort, and it's a buyer's market all the way.

laura k said...

The Mad Iron Haggler returned! Yesterday while at work I received this email:

I decided it to go ahead with the deal. can i have your contact/add and will pick it up around 1900hrs, if i like it. Thanks

I replied:

I am at work and will not be home until midnight, so that won't be possible. You can come anytime tomorrow if you like. Does that work for you?

He replied:

Basically i need it for tonight as I got job tommorrow and got no iron to press my clothes I dont mind coming afetr midnite as long as its not inconvenient for you. Thanks

If true, this man risked being unprepared for work, either because he wouldn't pay $5 more, or because he couldn't bring himself to pay the asking price.

In case you're wondering, I did not invite him over after midnight.

laura k said...

After I re-read JohnGoldfine's comment, it pisses me off no end that those hotels will deeply discount their rates when asked. It doesn't piss me off that John asks for the discount - why shouldn't he, since he knows he can often pay less for the same product? It pisses me off that the hotel is offering the same product at different prices for different people!

Note this is not offering rooms at a discount after a certain time of night - the same discount for everyone - similar to "rush" tickets in theatre. Empty rooms, like empty seats, bring in nothing; it's better to sell seats or rooms at half-price than not at all. But then offer the discount to every traveler who arrives after (say) 11:00 pm, and offer it up-front, unasked.

johngoldfine said...

"the hotel is offering the same product at different prices for different people!"

But pricing is always dependent on the situation, except in command economies. Businesses like hotels and airlines put rooms or seats into different-priced buckets, offer some to consolidators, some to the public, and change prices by the minute sometimes, depending on what is selling or not. If businesses don't do this or if it's done inefficiently, there'll be a black market (just as there is [or used to be] in Kenmore Square before Red Sox home games) where people have to go to get what they want at a price supply-and-demand has set, either more or less than the official command-price.

How do you feel about auctions, which are sort of the reverse of haggling? There is no upper limit to the bids, no set price, and only invoking the prisoner's dilemma stands between you and bankruptcy!

I completely agree that the idea of haggling over a bottle of water with a poor Peruvian woman is obscene.

Your experience with online selling kind of reminds me of your experience with online trolls--they don't listen, they get weird ideas, they push mindlessly and pointlessly, and (if it's not too far against wmtc rules to say this) they can't spell.

laura k said...

John, either my writing skills have seriously deteriorated, or you're being disingenuous. Of course pricing varies according to many factors. In my opinion it should not vary according to the relative skills of the buyer, so that less assertive, less adept buyers pay more than those mer adept at haggling.

You may disagree, I well understand that, but it seems as if you are purposely misunderstanding my complaint.

laura k said...

Your experience with online selling kind of reminds me of your experience with online trolls--they don't listen, they get weird ideas, they push mindlessly and pointlessly, and (if it's not too far against wmtc rules to say this) they can't spell.

Very true! Or at the very least they can't type and don't proofread!

I've had many good experiences with online selling. These hagglers, though...!

My only opinions about actions are disgust at competitive capitalism, and recognition of the appeal. The one time Allan and I went to an in-person auction, I got caught up in the competition and would easily have paid too much.

laura k said...

For clarification of the different-pricing scenario, please note my comments about rush tickets or discounted hotel rooms past a certain hour of night. In those cases, the theatre and hotel would charge the same price for every person who arrived at the box office or front desk at that hour.

Same product, different price according to market conditions, not different price according to consumer skills.

johngoldfine said...

Sorry, I was not trying to be disingenous, argue for argument's sake, or purposely misunderstand. Your writing skills are topnotch as usual--maybe I'm so busy noting the mote of not-listening in my neighbor's eye that I missed the beam in my own.

laura k said...

Thank you very much. I wasn't snapping at you - I hope it didn't read that way.

Tangent:

You have a way with apologies. I remember that from our "strengths" list - you noted your willingness and ability to apologize.

Another reader of this blog has said the same of me. Right-wing commenters on his blog used to piss me off, I'd react badly, and end up apologizing to my friend, the blog owner. Apparently this was rare in his experience.

johngoldfine said...

I am good with apologies, thanks, but I'd completely forgotten that I had listed it as a strength--I've had a lot of practice apologizing, would that it were not necessary so often, and it gets easier with repetition.

My own experience is that people with tempers, intelligence, and decent mental health will find themselves in untenable situations regularly--all three are needed to generate a situation needing an apology. My wife has the second two, but no temper at all except when she sees children or animals abused, and has never needed to apologize to me in nearly half a century of carrying on together.

laura k said...

Wait. Your wife has never needed to apologize to you? How can this be?

I'm not asking you to reveal more than you are comfortable with, of course. My questions are expressions of amazement and incredulity.

laura k said...

tempers, intelligence, and decent mental health

People with average or below-average intelligence don't hurt others' feelings?

I'll also note that I was raised by a person with a very bad temper and very poor mental health, and he regularly generated situations that called for apologies!

johngoldfine said...

My wife is amazing! I honestly cannot remember her ever apologizing or needing to since we became an item in 1963. Oh well, once she bought a chocolate cake for my birthday because that was all they had left that late in the day, and I seriously prefer white cake/white frosting. I think she apologized for that.

:)

johngoldfine said...

I think all three are needed to generate an apology, not to create a situation requiring an apology. I mis-wrote, but no apology is necessary!

Temper to say or do something dumb. Intelligence to see the situation for what it is. Mental health to accept the vulnerability an apology opens one up to.

laura k said...

Ah yes, that makes more sense, and is a very good analysis.

Your wife sounds like an amazing human being. And clearly, not Canadian!

(Although the constant apologizing by Canadians is not always what it seems to be. There's some discussion of that in comments here.)

allan said...

How do you feel about auctions, which are sort of the reverse of haggling?

At an auction, all the participants understand what is going on and proceed accordingly. In the hotel scenario, after you get your discounted room, the next person through the door might have no idea that a simple question or two could save them $40 (or whatever).

since we became an item in 1963

I also became an item in 1963!

tornwordo said...

I am so with you on this. I hate to haggle. But I love coupons. Like you say, be up front about it. We get the same characters asking for discounts on the rent when we have an empty apartment. I witnessed something miraculous however, while at Best Buy last weekend. A nice shopper appoached us as we were standing in the checkout line. In a whisper she offered us her $10 off coupon because she wasn't going to use it. As it turned out the coupon wouldn't work because Apple products were being purchased and were exempt from the discount. Then my friend says, "Well don't you have another coupon of some kind back there we could use? And I swear, the clerk started digging through the trash and found two different coupons that she scanned into the system. One of them worked.

I will be trying THAT line in the near future.

laura k said...

I love coupons, too! What you describe in Best Buy goes on in many stores. My mother - who is coupon mad - tells me that Bed, Bath & Beyond and Walgreens (like Shoppers Drug Mart or CVS where she lives) accept all competitors coupons. They don't care what they're for or if they've expired - they'll just give you the 20% or 10% off.

Re giving coupons away to others, in NYC we sometimes had a day Metropass - good for unlimited use for one day - with many hours left on it, and we'd try to give it away at the end of the day. It was an interesting sociological experiment, seeing people's reactions. Unfortunately most people already had an unlimited monthly pass, but once in a while we'd make someone's day.