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Opening Arguments

A bargaining culture

You've seen it in movies and novels and on television: Somebody is buying something from an outdoor bazaar in a foreign country and starts to pay whatever price the seller asks. But wait, the buyer is told by more savvy American friends. You have to haggle. Otherwise, they'll take you for an ignorant Westererner, and they may even be insulted. It's a not-too-subtle putdown of Third World quaintness, looking askance at those who aren't "developed" enough to know that setting the retail price is one of the landmarks of civilization. What, then, are we to make of this?

Shoppers are discovering an upside to the down economy. They are getting price breaks by reviving an age-old retail strategy: haggling.

A bargaining culture once confined largely to car showrooms and jewelry stores is taking root in major stores like Best Buy, Circuit City and Home Depot, as well as mom-and-pop operations.

Savvy consumers, empowered by the Internet and encouraged by a slowing economy, are finding that they can dicker on prices, not just on clearance items or big-ticket products like televisions but also on lower-cost goods like cameras, audio speakers, couches, rugs and even clothing.  

Prices have been fixed because the retailers knew what they can reasonably demand, and the consumers knew what reservoirs of discretionary income they could expect. This excursion into dickering is the sign of an uncertain economy, not just a slowing one.

I don't think I'll be very good at adapting to this new collapsing-economy world.

Kid at the door: Shovel your snow, mister?

Me: How much?

Kid: $15.

Me: OK.