The Art of Asking for a Discount

In January, This American Life aired a segment in which reporter Ben Calhoun went to a few stores and tried asking for a “good guy discount” at the register. Here’s how Calhoun explained it: A friend of his named Sonari Glinton was interviewing a negotiations expert from Columbia University Business School who described a technique where you ask at the register, “Can I get a good guy discount on that? You’re a good guy, I’m a good guy—come on, just, you know, a good guy discount.”

Essentially, what you’re doing is simply asking if the salesperson can give you a discount—just for being a person who is supposedly good in this world.

Ben Calhoun: So Sonari remembered this when he was about to buy these shoes. And honestly, he didn’t think it was going to work.

Sonari Glinton: And I go, hey, is there a good guy discount? And he goes, what? You’ve seen me here all day. You know I want these shoes. It’s tough for me, blah, blah, blah. And he looks at me, and he goes, I’ll tell you what, brother. And he swiped the card.

Ben Calhoun: Like his little authorization card.

Sonari Glinton: Yeah. And he goes, I’ll give you 25% off.

So Calhoun went out shopping and tried asking for a discount. After three failures (and feeling embarrassed about asking for a “good guy discount”), he succeeded in getting a five percent discount off a pot at a cookware shop.

Calhoun concluded that if you have a thick skin, this discount-getting approach may work for you, but that if you were truly a good person, you wouldn’t ask for one: “I know that this is going to sound super earnest. And I’m real sorry about that. But I believe it, so I’ve got to say it. I don’t think that you should try it. I’m not going to try it again.”

Not long after this segment aired, I was at a housewarming party and my friend Adam, a reporter at The New York Daily News, began telling everyone about how he recently got a discount on three pairs of shoes, plus some free socks and a wallet thrown in for good measure. Was it the “good guy discount” in action?

We sat down and talked about it. Here’s Adam:

I feel like I come from a family that, while everyone is polite, when it comes down to it, nobody is afraid to ask for anything. And this is something that has manifested prominently at consumer goods stores—especially ones in which we we will be spending a lot of money. When they’re making large purchases, my dad and my mom aren’t afraid to push the salesman into giving us a couple of freebies.

I was at home in Milwaukee over Thanksgiving and my mom and I had a deal where she was going to buy me a new pair of shoes at Clarks for my birthday. They were having a buy one, get the second pair for 50 percent off sale, and I planned to get the second pair for myself. I really like Clarks and have a brand loyalty situation with them.

So we walked in there—they know me because I’ve been buying the same pair of Wallabees from them for the past six or seven years. So I went in there and I was planning on buying a pair of Wallabees, and the salesman kind of convinced me to change my look—telling me that I had outgrown the Clarks Wallabees. He showed me few other pairs, and I ended up liking another pair similar to the Wallabees: a wing-tipped loafer, as well as a pair of brown suede bucks. They were all priced reasonably enough that it was feasible for us to buy all three pairs, so it turned into us buying all three of them.

When we were checking out, it dawned on my mom that we were dropping somewhere between about $250 and $300, and she said, jokingly, “Why don’t you throw in a couple pair of socks? We’re spending good money here and my son has bought Clarks his whole adult life.”

The guy was really receptive: He said, “You know what, we are a family-owned company, we have lifetime warrantees, it really is our prerogative in the mold of L.L. Bean and a few other companies to make the customer happy, so why don’t you go for it?”

So I picked out three pairs of socks. Meanwhile I thought about how I needed a wallet, and they had a nice selection at the counter, and I said, “Can I have a wallet, too?”

He waffled. I said, “We’re spending a few hundred dollars here, what’s a $25 wallet?” And he said, “All right.” We started chit-chatting after that, warming up some more, and he gave us the “buy one get one for 50 percent off” on the first two pairs, and he ended up giving us his employee discount on the third pair. I’m sure the retail value of what we bought was close to $340, and we walked out of there paying probably just a shade over $250. It was a really positive experience.

He gave us his name. He said, “You know, we don’t work on commission, but if you fill out this survey, I’ll get some kind of bonus if you mention my name.” I went home and did that. It was a really satisfying experience buying Clarks.

 

Adam, is this a one-time occurrence?

It’s a stab my dad takes anytime he’s spending a good amount of money.

Another time that stand outs prominently to me was when I was going to college, and my sister was starting high school. My parents were buying my sister and I laptops, and meanwhile they needed to buy a new computer for themselves. We went to Best Buy and didn’t pick out anything fancy—just two modest laptops and a modest desktop, and it was a lot of money for a middle- or upper-middle class family—it was a lot of money that we were spending. It was $3,000 and my dad is on the frugal side.

And my dad said in no uncertain terms to the salesman that if he was going to be spending $3,000, he wanted some perks. And they said, “Well, what do you want?” And he said, “Well, as a matter-of-fact, I’d like a free Microsoft Office suite, and two laptop bags for both of my children.

And the guy said, “I can’t do that.” And my dad said, “If you can’t do that, we won’t make this purchase.” He was bluffing.

But the bluff wasn’t called—I think Best Buy was still working on commission at that time, this was 2001, or 2002—and the guy threw in those things. It was probably a value of $300. And ever since that happened, it stood out to me as an example of if you’re a customer, don’t be afraid to assertively but amicably ask for some perks if you’re spending a lot of money in one place.

 

Does it feel weird asking for discounts or perks? Does it make you nervous?

I definitely feel weird about it. I felt embarrassed when my father did it. I was in high school. And I do feel awkward doing it. I never felt entitled to that kind of empowerment as a consumer, but after I saw my dad do it, it got my gears turning. Why shouldn’t I ask for it? The worst that can happen is that they say no. And if you do it casually, you don’t end up embarrassing yourself or causing a scene.

This is a theory: I do feel like it might have something to do with us being in the Midwest. Relationships on the East Coast—things are matter-of-fact and to the point, and people don’t schmooze as much. But in the Midwest, people are always schmoozing. It’s like a relationship, which makes it easier to say, “Can we work something out here?” That’s my theory. To that end, I would feel more comfortable doing it in the Midwest than I would here.

On the other hand, we’re asked to buy stuff all the time. I’ve been in the Banana Republic where people know me, and people try to convince me to buy more things. And I have a person who cuts my hair and schmoozes with me and tries to sell me products for my curly hair. I don’t feel offended that she’s trying to make that extra money. At the same time, if I need special services from her, I’m not going to be afraid to ask.

 

This kind of thing has never happened to me before. The only thing that comes to mind is that I used to work at an office next to a fruit stand, and I’d go to that fruit stand every day to buy something. After a week or so, the fruit stand man started putting extra fruit in my bag: “Here’s free fruit! I’m doing this for you because you are my pal!”

Now that we’re talking about it, I have some other examples:

I have a particularly spectacular dentist—like a luxury dentist. He designs his practice for people who are particularly afraid of going to the dentist, and he models the whole experience on certain principles of Zen Buddhism. The place is really relaxing: There is a masseuse, they do foot massage. It was recommended to me from a colleague at an old job, and I thought it was so spectacular, I told my friends about it, one who was then writing for The New York Times. He ended up writing about it which brought him a lot of publicity, and a lot of customers, on top of the 10 to 15 people I had referred to him. As a result, he never charges me for dental work. When he does, he bills it in a way that never comes out of pocket. And it’s not like I needed emergency dental work. And it’s been without me asking for it.

 

That’s so crazy.

It’s pretty wild!

Have you done this with, say, your cable bill? Negotiated a lower rate?

I’ve done it with annual fees for credit cards. I’ve pointed out that I have good credit and have never missed payment, and they waive the fee.

Last thoughts?

I don’t want to be seen as a penny-pincher, or cheap. But given my place in the world, and what I’m making, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to ask for perk here or there. Quite frankly, I rarely do it. But it’s something I take pride in and encourage people to do now and then.

 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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19 Comments / Post A Comment

I can guarantee that on the supply side of this argument, they are bargaining for the price of their goods. The idea that it’s ‘rude’ to try to get discounts is one that never benefits the consumer-but it definitely, DEFINITELY benefits those who own the wealth.

Little known fact: Nordstrom’s honors other stores’ prices. I will stand there and look up a price on my iphone before I buy ANYTHING. I started doing this because I went shopping with a very attractive, very stylish friend of mine-and the salespeople all offered her 50% discounts on clothes. Because she was pretty. It had never before dawned on me that they had such leeway in pricing, but ever since, I take whatever I can get.

A-M (#4,317)

I heard that episode, too, and I thought it would be really weird to ask for that kind of a discount. But reading this reminded me that I did, in a way, just the other week. I’d just moved and forgotten to pack my umbrella, and after dodging it for a few semi-rainy days I couldn’t deny the need for one. I ducked into a CVS, grabbed an umbrella, and went to the counter. The clerk was having a hard time finding the bar code, and while he kept looking and looking, I joked, “You could just give it to me!” He looked at me, found the bar code, and said, “How about I give you half off?” I was too terrified to ask if he was serious in case he would rescind the offer, so I smiled and said that sounded great. And bam: half off.

moreadventurous (#4,956)

I have a good story in this department.

When I moved back to Texas after college, I ended up going on an Ikea trip with my mom. It was only like my third day being back, I was very poor, and I did that thing where you immediately act like a child while with your parents. I was also a little hangry by the end of it. Anyway, she talked me into going to the mattress store that was right there before we headed to lunch. I was not having it. On the verge of tears, throwing a gross 22-year-old temper tantrum, I was able to get the sales man to offer me a $450 mattress for $300 because I just kept saying I wasn’t going to buy it.

The truly remarkable part, though, is I hadn’t been bluffing and I left without taking him up on the offer. Two days later, I realized I’d been super dumb to not take it. So, I walked into a different location of the same store and just told the saleswoman the $300 offer Steve or whoever had extended to me. Without blinking an eye, she ran with it. I literally paid exactly $300, including tax and everything. The mattress is awesome.

TL;DR it works in Texas too.

@moreadventurous mattresses are some of the best things to bargain for-I got an $800 mattress for $300!

francesfrances (#1,522)

I thought the good guy discount story on This American Life was hilarious. I love the stories when Ira is totally fascinated and amused by something. Plus, Ben Calhoun was so terrible at asking for the discount. Anyway, it turned into a bit of a running joke for my boyfriend and I. We mentioned it to each other sometimes, and finally, we tried it, word for word (“I’m good guy, you’re a good guy) at a bowling alley. It didn’t work, but the cashier had a good laugh.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@amyfrances So good, right? It’s also always fun to me getting a little personal insight — like of COURSE Sonari Glinton can pull this off, but Ben Calhoun can’t.

@amyfrances I kept thinking the TAL guy was taking the “good guy discount” too literally. He seemed to think that “good guy discount” was a code phrase that communicated affiliation with a secret order, entitled to paying less for their goods and services. I think of it more as shorthand for the general concept that the person behind the counter sometimes has the ability and may be willing to knock money off the price, e.g. through advertised or unadvertised specials or with an employee discount.

The simplest, most basic and least controversial example of this? Whenever I call a pizza shop, I always ask if they have any specials going on, and usually indicate approximately what I’m looking for (because pizza shops almost always have loads of specials going on).

Another simple angle? Asking for a student discount, or a senior discount, or a veteran discount, or… whatever you can think of.

Worst case scenario, just mention you’re really interested in buying (whatever it is), but you are having a hard time justifying paying (the price) for it, and ask if there’s anything they can do.

Basically, the ability to reduce the price of a good or service is a bit like a magic power, especially if the money is not coming out of the pocket of the person you’re negotiating with, and really, who wouldn’t enjoy showing off their magic power?

glitterary (#6,299)

@Clinton Weir@facebook Yeah. I do this pretty much every time I want to buy something expensive; just ask “is there any way of reducing that?” or “can I get any kind of discount on it?” and for expensive things it works. Not so much on low- and mid-range prices, though, but asking in a generic way does mean you’re likely to be told about any deals you might not know about offhand. The “good guy” phrasing actually sounds pretty sleazy–if I were a retail assistant I’d be inclined to turn them down because they really don’t sound all that much like a good guy.

@amyfrances I live in a small town right now where “good guy discount” is verbatim used as locals discount phrasing. and internally I roll my eyes every time I hear it. It just seems so pretentious and obnoxious and cheap to me. But, whatever, on the retail side when somebody uses it I feel kinda obligated to honour it. Maybe that’s part of why it annoys me.

stephstern (#4,149)

I was motivated by the This American Life story and called my phone company. I asked for a lower monthly plan and they immediately gave me more minutes (unlimited!) for less per month. It was a better deal than they advertised online. Bolstered by this, I tried my internet company, but they wouldn’t budge.

cryptolect (#1,135)

I was also inspired by the TAL story to ask for discounts, but it didn’t work. HOWEVER, the talk about Clarks in the post above inspired me to call their customer service line about a pair of boots that I bought four years ago with a serious design flaw. And they offered me a new pair of boots! So, asking works, sometimes.

lapgiraffe (#1,336)

Ugh, this rubs me the wrong way. In reflection I think I come from a very different pole of this retail sphere, where the examples above are mostly related to a) larger stores/companies and b) larger, one time purchases. Whereas I spent years managing a fine wine shop where a) we were small and independently owned and b) we were looking to cultivate repeat customers on (relatively) smaller purchases. But that does make me want to point out this difference, that maybe there’s room for asking and discounting in some areas of commerce, but not all.

I completely resented the people who asked for freebies or discounts or what have you. The majority of them ask in a way that is entitled, arrogant, and really hammers down exactly where I stand in their hierarchy – at the bottom, at their service. When the owners take home as much money as the customers (or less), and they’re often in the shop themselves, there is something not just rude, but downright personal about asking for special treatment for no reason other than because you’re a “good guy” or just because you have the gall to ask.

But you know who does get perks and such? Actual good guys. You become a regular, you treat me like a human, you’re kind and considerate to the people who work at the store and other customers alike, guess what? You get free bottles, you get a “just because” discount, you get a free wine key, you get to sample the stupidly expensive bottle we have open in the kitchen, you get let in after hours to grab a few extra bottles for your party and you get to take them on the honor system because I truly know and believe you’re a good guy who’s good for it. Again, I realize it’s a different world from the Best Buys and Nordstroms out there, but some people need reminding of that, and perhaps should consider the benefits of shopping small.

Lana (#6,248)

@lapgiraffe Exactly! I keep a second job at a small clothing boutique (essentially as a clothing budget) and I get asked for discounts almost every time I work. Like you said, ninety percent of the time the person asking assumes that they deserve it and that you will give it to them. Since it is a small business the owner empowers us to make our own decisions regarding discounts, etc. and what these customers don’t know is that we can definitely give them something in exchange for being treated like a human. Asking can work when paired with the right attitude!

j a y (#3,935)

Yeah, I think it’s fine to do this in a non-aggressive, polite way… but I just can’t bring myself to do it. That’s why I prefer to Internet shop.

guenna77 (#856)

my job involves something where a lot of people ask me for discounts or freebies. there is NOTHING that will get you on my jerk list faster than asking for a discount. it’s super entitled to think that you shouldn’t have to pay what other people pay. i may do favors on my own for people if they have proven that they are worth it. but if you ASK me for a favor or discount or deadline extension, and you have no other reason aside from ‘i just want one’ then you will be the last person to get one, no matter how politely you think you are asking.

@guenna77 yes, everyone should have to prove their worth to you. Exactly. They are jerks, you are the one that doesn’t sound like a jerk here. For sure.

@guenna77 I typically don’t ask for a discount directly, but I think the key thing is to express interest in the product, display an inner conflict, and come from a position of vulnerability rather than from a position of strength or entitlement, and try to connect with the salesperson. In other words, be honest. When I’m really struggling to justify spending $x on product Y, I just say so, and see what happens.

Note: That didn’t work at all with Verizon when I approached them in advance to jumping at T-Mobile’s ETF reimbursement deal.

BananaPeel (#1,555)

Reminds me of this essay, “When ‘Life Hacking’ is Really White Privilege” https://medium.com/get-bullish/a5e5f4e9132f

We old bastards aways ask for the SCD. Sometimes y sometimes n, but aways ask. Grumpy doesn’t cut it, so smile.

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