ST. LOUIS — When Greg Schmidt was shopping for a bathroom vanity just before Valentine's Day, paying regular price never was an option. When he found one he liked on clearance — its price slashed more than 30 percent — Schmidt knew it was time to find a manager of the Lowe's store.
Marked prices are supposed to be final, or at least that's what we've always been trained to think. Schmidt and a growing number of American consumers seem to think otherwise.
The 42-year-old Bethalto, Ill., man bought the vanity for $125, or $50 less than the sale price.
For Schmidt, haggling is the norm. He bargains on just about every big purchase, from cameras to car repairs. Usually, he sticks to sales, and then he wants at least an additional 10 percent knocked off. And, usually, he gets it.
"If you're polite and you're reasonable, most people are going to work with you," Schmidt said. "Sometimes I don't save as much as I'd like, but it just about always works to some degree."
A survey of 1,000 shoppers last year by Consumer Reports indicated that, in the previous six months, more than two-thirds of Americans tried to bargain for a better deal and that — in most of those cases — the hagglers succeeded at getting retailers to lower prices.
The survey found that hagglers had success rates topping 75 percent when they tried to negotiate lower prices on hotels, cell phone plans, clothing, jewelry and appliances. Consumers who said they bargained for lower medical bills were successful about 58 percent of the time.
Hard-core hagglers tend to be younger shoppers, according to the Consumer Reports survey, which found that 37 percent of those under 35 said they "always or often asked for discounts."
Other evidence toward bargaining comes from America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C., firm that researches consumer attitudes for companies such as General Electric.
For more than 20 years, ARG Chief Executive Britt Beemer has been asking Americans about haggling. During most of that time, only about a third of those surveyed said they've recently bargained for a lower price. About a year ago, that number shot up to about 72 percent — and it's stayed that high in several followup polls, including a recent one.
"It's the highest I've ever seen it," said Beemer, who doesn't think the haggling trend will end when the economy recovers. "Consumers are getting deals, and they're not going to give that up."
The increase in haggling isn't a fad as much as a "cultural shift," says Shweta Oza, who studies bartering and negotiation as an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Business Administration.
"American consumers always thought they couldn't ask for a price cut; they thought it was being cheap or weird," Oza said. "But the economy has acted like a trigger — it's telling them that you can ask retailers for a break and that you'll usually get it."
Americans are more comfortable asking for discounts, Oza believes, and they're finding that haggling "is empowering, not demeaning."
Sales clerks also seem more accustomed to bargaining, said Oza, who said a Macy's worker didn't hesitate to knock $40 off the price of a food processor Oza bought late last year.
A spokeswoman for Macy's said the department store has a firm no-haggling policy. A spokeswoman for Lowe's, where Schmidt got an extra $50 off that vanity, said store managers shouldn't haggle but they can adjust prices for one-of-a-kind, clearance items.