How to haggle unsuccessfully


I hate haggling. It’s way too stressful. I hate having to disappoint people, and I worry about insulting them. Also, I always wonder if I’m getting ripped off. To be honest, I have no idea how much things really cost. I just want someone to tell me what something costs, and then I can either say yes or no. Please.

And yet, I know that haggling can make things cost less, which lets you have more, which means you can do things you couldn’t otherwise do. It’s kind of like free money, if free money that was contingent on doing something containing the anxiety level of getting your wisdom teeth removed.

This aversion to haggling is purely cultural. I’ve traveled to places in the world where it was customary to haggle over the price of individual fruits and vegetables. Where everything was a conversation.

But personally, I always feel like this guy:


Nevertheless, if I stayed within my comfort zone, I would never be able to achieve anything of greatness or substance. So a few years ago, I resolved to get better at haggling. I did my research, learned about different techniques, found a suitable purchase target, and went in for the kill.

And failed spectacularly.

So in the spirit of owning up to my own failures, here is the story of an unsuccessful haggling. It all begins with a guitar.

Let’s buy a guitar

After years of playing an entry-level acoustic guitar, I decided that I wanted to upgrade.

I’m not a “guitar guy”, and names usually don’t mean much to me, but I had always coveted Martin guitars. They are the classic, and their sound is unmistakable.

After some more research, I narrowed down the kind of guitar I wanted. Standard dreadnought size, rosewood (for the smell if not the sound), and a gloss top finish. The model I wanted was a staggering sum, but this was presumably the only acoustic guitar I would ever need to buy.

While the new models sounded great, I found a used model at a local store, three years old and almost $500 cheaper, which strangely felt and sounded better than the new ones. This particular guitar (don’t laugh) “sung to me”. This was my guitar.

So I resolved to go in and haggle for it.

(Do you see the problems brewing yet?)

My bargaining chip

My biggest bargaining chip was cash. I had been reading that cash has an emotional component to it that credit and debit cards don’t. When you spend cash, you feel it. And when cash is offered in front of your face, you feel it too. Or at least, this is what I’d read.

So I took out the price of the guitar in cash. I figured that I could flash that and get the salesperson’s attention. I would offer lower and maybe we could agree to something in the middle.

Initial engagement

I entered the place and engaged the sales person. I told him it was a good guitar, and that I might be interested, but I wondered if he had flexibility on the price.

No. Sorry. In fact, I’m raising the price a hundred dollars tomorrow.

The guy had at a stroke removed pretty much all of my bargaining power. I tried to play it cool, and told him it was too much. “Okay, I understand,” he said, and went off to help other customers. Wow, that didn’t go well.

Whether he knew it or not, he had me over a barrel. And this was because the most important component to a successful negotiation is the ability to walk away. And I failed this test utterly. I really wanted this guitar, and its uniqueness meant that I couldn’t go to some other store and get it there. It was this one or nothing.

I tried to offer him a lower amount in cash, and unsurprisingly was rebuffed. This was not going my way.

The worst negotiation tactic ever

I should probably have just walked out and come back another day, but the idea that I could walk in tomorrow and have the guitar be a hundred dollars more kept me from being willing to let it go. I was stuck.

I tried to salvage the situation, and asked him to throw in something. Figuring, if I couldn’t adjust the price, I could adjust what I got for the price. It was worth a shot.

How about this humidifier?” I said, eyeing a $20 device that you put in the sound hole to keep the wood from drying out. “Why don’t you throw that in?

No, sorry.

I was getting nowhere, feeling a spiral of shame and embarrassment. I couldn’t leave. I didn’t feel like I could accept complete defeat. I was stuck.

So I just stayed there, wandering around the place, periodically asking questions of the guy, but otherwise standing around and looking unhappy. Not my finest hour.

Finally, I think the guy took pity on me, or really just wanted me out of his store, and agreed to throw in the humidifier. And with that we had ourselves a sale.

Adding pain to the sale

On top of it all, paying in cash was excruciating. Pulling out all that money and seeing it on the counter made me feel a wave of anxiety that bordered on nausea. This was a lot of money. I would never have felt that if I had paid with a card. This was proof that paying in cash can make you want to spend less, especially on large purchases. Who wants that level of anxiety? (I would later explore this more when I spent only cash for a month.)

What I learned

In retrospect, the real lesson to be learned wasn’t anything to do with negotiation. It was that you can’t expect to be good at something the first time you try it, no matter how much research and preparation you undertake. When it’s something that one has no natural aptitude for, is it any wonder that I was unsuccessful?

I still believed that haggling was an important skill after this incident. But after such a stinging defeat, I needed some time off to regroup, and find a better target. But that’s a story for another time.

But enough about me. Have you ever had any haggling failures? You’re certainly not alone.

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