On being ... negotiable

By Ingrid Sapona

The other day I was in Canadian Tire, a big box chain that’s a combination Wal-Mart, Kmart and Sears hardware and automotive. I’m not sure why, but it seems many Canadians have a soft spot for this store. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that many of them probably got their first pair of hockey skates there, or their first bike, or the bulk of their camping gear. (Canadians love camping gear.)

Anyway, though there are things about Canadian Tire that I really don’t like (for example, the fact that you have to go through a turnstile to get into the store -- I find that completely dehumanizing), I often end up there because there are just certain things you can be sure you’ll find there. The other day I was looking for an indoor/outdoor thermometer.

I was surprised at how many different kinds there were. After a quick comparison, I realized a digital wireless one would best suit my purpose. Beyond that, I didn’t really know what was different about each model, other than the prices, which ranged from $18.99 to $32.99. The one that appealed to me most was $24.99, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend that much.

Then I noticed a sign on the display that said certain models were on sale for 25% off. I couldn’t tell if the $24.99 one was on sale. Fortunately, a sales associate walked by. I asked whether the one I was holding (the $24.99 model) was 25% off. I handed it to her and followed her as she checked it on a nearby computer. After keying in the number she said, “No, it’s not,” then she added, “but it was on sale two weeks ago for $9.94.” Just my luck -- I missed the sale.

Then, unprompted, she added, “So tell the cashier and she’ll give it to you for $9.94.” I had never heard of such a thing and I was highly skeptical, so I asked her to explain exactly what I should say to the cashier. She reiterated that I should say it was on sale two weeks ago for $9.94.

I then went to the furthest cashier, hoping no one would get in line behind me so my request for the two-week-old sale price wouldn’t be overheard. The cashier scanned it and it came up at $24.99. I then mentioned that another clerk said I should tell the cashier that it was on sale awhile ago at $9.94. Then, without a word, the cashier walked over to the service counter and looked it up on a computer there. She came back and voided the $24.99 and rang in $9.94 – simple as that.

Of course, I was delighted to get the thermometer for $10, but the incident left me feeling oddly unsettled. I don’t know if it was because I couldn’t help wonder if there were other times at Canadian Tire that I might have benefited from the application of this policy, if I’d only thought to ask. (The policy is not widely publicized, mind you -- I had certainly never heard of it, nor have any of the friends I’ve told this story to.)

In thinking about it since then, I’ve come to the conclusion my uneasiness came from the fact that I’ve never liked negotiating prices for things. I’ve been to countries where everyone will tell you you’re “never supposed to pay the asking price” -- and I hate that. I always feel like either I’m taking advantage of them, or that I’m being taken advantage of -- hardly a win/win, if you ask me.

I realize that being given a previously-determined “sale” price by a large retailer isn’t exactly haggling, but I know I got that price only because I (innocently) asked if that model was on sale and because I mentioned the previous sale price to the cashier. I’ll bet that if someone went to buy that same thermometer later that day, odds are they wouldn’t have gotten it for $9.94. So how different is that from two unsuspecting buyers paying vastly different prices for the same item at some third world bazaar?

I know many people love bargaining for things, but I don’t. I find it stressful, not to mention time consuming. To enjoy it, I think you have to know what you want and what you’re willing to pay for an item, and you have to be willing to walk away. Invariably, I waiver on at least two of those criteria. (The thermometer is a classic example: when I arrived at the store, all I knew was that I wanted a thermometer. Had the model I was considering not been one on sale, I probably would have just gone with the $18.99 model, mainly because I didn’t want to spend more than $20 for one.)

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I think life’s complicated enough without always wondering if you could have gotten a better price on everything. I’m not opposed to things going on sale – I just want to know what the price is upfront. Then I’ll decide if I want it and, if I can afford it, I’ll take it!

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona