PAGE 4
"Wow, you really stink at making deals!" That's what my editor wrote when she returned an early draft of this story to me. She pointed out that I had not, in fact, gotten a deal at the Alliance Française; I was merely informed of a sale that would be offered to everyone. And I'd actually paid more than I usually would for a taxi ride (I typically tip cabdrivers only 15 percent). In fact, the only deal I'd gotten was at the dentist's (a treatment my editor was half-convinced I didn't even need). Yet the fact that I was in the bargaining game at all made me feel I was winning, even when the result wasn't in my favor—like hitting foul balls and being proud simply because the bat had made contact. I'd thought the moment I opened my mouth to make a deal, I would automatically be thrown out of the game. When I wasn't....I won!

Happily oblivious to the fact that the only thing I was succeeding at was lightening my wallet, I continued to push the limits of sociability. The small John Lobb shop on Madison Avenue in New York City sells handmade shoes for men (and some gentlemanly styles for women). The salesman, smartly dressed and comported, welcomed me into the store. "I'm wondering..." I began. I felt awkward, as if I had just dropped in unannounced at the salesman's elegant home. So I got right to the point. "If I were to buy a male friend a pair of bespoke shoes as a gift, could you help me out on the price?" "Oh, I'm so sorry, I'm afraid not," said the salesman in a consoling way. He told me that the least expensive pair would set me back just under $7,000. I think I turned pale. "But the second pair is usually about $1,000 less," he added. I nodded, as if that were somehow meaningful. "What if I chose a very inexpensive material?" I said, though even as I asked, I was thinking, Like what, aluminum foil? The salesman looked down; he seemed sad for both of us. "I'm sorry, no." I knew I wasn't going to get anywhere, but I couldn't resist one more shot. "And what if my friend's feet were very, very small?" The salesman smiled gently. "The same price, whether he's a size 5 or a 15." His graciousness never wavered. But there were no deals to be had.

When I related my experiences to Shapiro at the Harvard Negotiation Project, he understood instantly why I was only partly successful. ("Not to beat a dead horse," wrote my editor, "but 'partly successful' is overstating it.") "People often see negotiation as adversarial; I see it as a shared problem," Shapiro said. "Both sides need to have their interests met." Evidently, what I gave the taxi driver and the hygienist was an opportunity to feel good about themselves. (Also, the hygienist later confided to me that she asks for deals on everything, so I'd unwittingly given her a feeling of affiliation. "If I'm offered a free drink on a long flight, I'll ask for a second one for later," she said. "If I want a better hotel room, or a free breakfast when it's not included, I always ask. And I almost always get what I want.")

But apparently I hadn't offered the salon receptionist anything beneficial. I might have told her that I'd been to the salon up the street, where the blow-outs were less expensive, but that I liked her salon and was looking for a way that I could afford to keep coming back; if she could work with me, I'd give her my business. At the shoemaker, I might have started by making clear that I wanted to buy. "Here's my situation," I could have said. "I would love it if I could afford a pair of these shoes." I could then have asked if there might be a damaged pair in the back of the store; were they fixable? Rather than let the damaged shoes go to waste, the salesman and I both could have benefited.

I thanked Shapiro for his insight and said goodbye, hugely relieved that my day of deals was over. Though I had forced myself to negotiate all day long, it was never less than excruciating. I hate confrontation, don't like challenging the status quo (unless I think it's unfair), and disagreeing makes me feel...disagreeable. And yet I believed that if I kept at it, I'd eventually hone my negotiation skills.

As a gift to myself for my courage, I stopped in a flower shop on my way home. The air inside was dense and humid and smelled of loam, greenery, and sweet freesia. "I love this smell," I said to the proprietor. I told him I was looking for a flowering plant for my apartment and that I planned to put it in a spot where there was no direct light. This set him off on a disquisition about flowering plants, to which I listened raptly. As he talked, I noticed a couple of lovely little orchids in clay pots. "I wish I could afford every plant in your store," I told him, truthfully. "But how much are those small orchids?" "Seventy-five," he said. "Oh," I said. "Let me think about it." I left the store and returned a couple of hours later, planning to ask for at least 10 percent off. "I was here a while ago looking at the orchids," I said. "Which one do you like?" asked the owner.

We looked at a couple of them together. "The yellow and purple," he decided. "They're the prettiest," I agreed. He glanced at me as he took the flower off the shelf. "I'll give it to you for $65," he said. "But don't tell anyone."

Get 25 ways to save big on everything from your next flight to food at the farmer's market

NEXT STORY

Comment

LONG FORM
ONE WORD