The Art of Haggling: What Have You Got to Lose?

Stephan Zabel | E+ | Getty Images

Hate to pay full price? Maybe you should try to negotiate a lower one.

Haggling doesn't always work, but if you have the courage to give it a try, you might save some money or get something extra for your efforts.

Consumer Reports surveyed 2,000 shoppers and found that 89 percent of those who'd haggled for a better deal in the last few years did save money at least once.

"If you speak up, chances are you'll be successful at getting something," said Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports.

And the savings can be sizable. According to the magazine's survey:

  • Furniture shoppers who tried to negotiate a discount saved about $300.
  • Those who questioned a medical bill had it lowered by about $300.
  • Haggling about the price of a cellphone plan saved $80.

The survey showed women are not as comfortable with the process as men, so they tend to haggle a little bit less. But, when they do, they are just as successful.

In some cultures, customers are expected to haggle. Not in the U.S. The whole idea makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable.

More than a third (35 percent) of the shoppers surveyed by Consumer Reports said they absolutely refuse to do it.

"If you don't haggle, you are leaving money on the table," said Marks, a habitual haggler who bargains for almost everything. "You have nothing to lose, but your pride. And if they say no, you just move along to the next one."

Some People Can't Shop Without Hhaggling

Tyler Tervooren, a writer who lives in Portland, Ore., loves to haggle. It's one of his favorite hobbies.

"The first few times you do it and you're successful you see that the world is more negotiable than you previously thought, and that is pretty empowering," he said. "You'd be surprised at how often people are willing to work with you."

Tervooren shared tips on haggling in a story he called How to Haggle Like Your Old Man. He noted that haggling has nothing to do with being cheap. He simply enjoys the process.

"Great negotiation is not at all about price—it's about value," he told me. "In fact, the further you get away from price, the more likely you are to succeed."

In other words, your haggling may not result in a discount, but you might get free shipping, free installation or accessories thrown in at no cost.

"It's all about looking at the end price you pay, once you add up all the things you need," Tervooren explained.

How to Be a Better Haggler

Haggling tactics vary, depending on what you're buying and what you're trying to accomplish. But based on its survey, Consumer Reports found the most popular tactic for getting a discount was to check a competitor's price.

It also pays to be polite. Savvy negotiators know to be nice and friendly and skip the tough talk. Remember, no one owes you a discount. And be discreet, a salesperson may not want to offer you a lower price if others will hear about it.

Consumer Reports offers these six key tips to make your haggling more successful:

  1. Give sellers a reason to negotiate: Loyal customers should remind the merchant or service provider of their repeated business. Offering a discount is a small price to pay to keep you coming back.
  2. Ask open-ended questions: Retailers are more likely to turn down a customer who asks questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Instead of asking for a specific dollar-amount or percentage off an item, ask what they are willing to offer as a discount.
  3. Decide on a fair price: Research the cost of any product before buying. Call the store to confirm that it will match a lower price. Take proof of that better price. If you can't get a discount, ask for something extra, such as free shipping, delivery or installation.
  4. Ask for a cash discount: Paying with cash or check instead of a credit card eliminates the transaction fee (about 3 percent) that must be paid to the credit card companies.
  5. Find flaws: Merchants may offer a discount on products with cosmetic blemishes or slight defects, such as clothing with snags, smudges or stains, and appliances or electronics with dings or scratches.
  6. Be willing to walk away: It's expensive for stores to attract new customers, so they're often willing to work hard to keep their existing ones. But if you don't think you are getting a good price, go elsewhere and try to negotiate a better price.

A footnote: After writing this column, I went to the mall to buy a new watch and decided to see if I could get a lower price. Guess what? I did. I saved me $100. Now, that is empowering.

—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.