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Mark Ellwood, author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World, on how to haggle with flair

Mark Ellwood

Mark Ellwood

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Updated: October 18, 2013 2:25PM

According to Racked Chicago’s Jenny Berg, Chicago finally has solidified its status as a luxury market. As fast fashion has boomed, locals have shunned disposable trend pieces and instead buy investment pieces. “Of course, we have the weather, too,” she laughs. Put another way: Shelling out for a pricey coat in Los Angeles is a risky cost per wear, while in Chicago it’s guaranteed great value.

The problem is the price — or at least, it used to be. Discounts are no longer the exception but the norm. Ten years ago, retailers sold just 15 to 20 percent of their inventory at a discount, while today, that number is 40 to 45 percent. Too many shops are opening to cater to too few shoppers, so there’s never been a better time to shop high-end boutiques. These days, you don’t have to wait for the inevitable sale to start; it’s as simple as asking nicely — otherwise known as haggling.

For some reason, though, haggling has garnered an unfair reputation. After researching bargain shopping for the last two years, I’m here to suggest a few ways to get the price you want — without sacrificing your dignity.

1. Instead of assuming that questioning a price is an aggressive gesture, think of it as a polite way to start conversation. Never raise your voice, but also don’t take no for an answer. In an era of bargain fever, simply remember a sales assistant wants to sell that pair of shoes to bank the commission — whatever it takes. Bear that in mind as you walk up, smiling as you say something like, “I love these stilettos, but I promised myself I wouldn’t spend this much today. Do you have any flexibility?”

2. Try joking around a little, perhaps saying, “Gosh, is this the ‘I’m not feeling wealthy today’ price?”

3. Pose an open-ended question: “Under what circumstances might you be able to extend some kind of discount?” (There’s bound to be some upcoming sale, after all).

4. Point out how credit card companies levy 3 to 4 percent transaction fees at a store — perhaps the boutique can pass a discount along for paying in cash? I know of one savvy bargain shopper who finagled a 20 percent discount at Prada simply by offering to pay in bills.

5. There’s another upside to befriending a staffer this way. Each of them holds retail’s answer to Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket — an invitation to the pre-sale. This secret bargaining bonanza starts a week or so before the official sale begins, and regulars are invited to shop the store at a discount and cherry-pick their favorites.

If a sales associate starts greeting you by name after a few haggled purchases, consider your efforts a success.

“Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World” is available for pre-order (at a discount, of course) on now and in bookstores Oct. 17. Mark Ellwood will be one of the featured speakers at Chicago Ideas Week, sharing stories and tips of how to shop better, Oct. 14 (tickets are $15 at

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