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The Artful Collector
Strange New Worlds  Issue 12 - February/March 1994

Negotiating the Rocky Waters of Collecting
A Helpful Guide on How to Get it For Less
by Jane Frank
Director of Worlds of Wonder Gallery, Washington DC

Negotiation is woven into the daily fabric of our lives. We buy and sell cars and homes. We bargain over salaries. On a larger scale, unions negotiate contracts and nations arrange treaties and trade agreements. Why then do collectors stress out at the potential for negotiating the price of a Star Wars poster?

DO's and DONT's
of Negotiating

Don’t disparage the article as a means of getting a reduced price. If it is so lousy, why would you want it?
Do politely point out flaws that could provide a seller with the excuse for lowering a price, if that seems reasonable, and if the flaws truly affect the value of the item.

Don’t bargain a twenty-dollar item down to five dollars, then pull out a $50 bill and ask for change.
Do carry plenty of ones and fives in your pocket for quick sale situations. Expect “bundling.” Example: $2 items are automatically three for $5.

Don’t make a ritual of calculating discounts unless this tactic would be to your benefit.
Do figure ahead of time what possible discount would have what potential effect on price.

Don’t show your money or disclose your bargaining position until time to discuss price. [This is a figurative as well as literal showing. In absolutely no event should you open your wallet or show cash or credit until it’s time. Then do so only circumspectly.]
Do probe the seller for as much information as possible before making an offer. The more you know about his/her position, the better able you will be to offer a price that cannot be refused. And wait for that information.

Don’t issue ultimatums unless you are prepared to walk away.
Do walk away if the price remains too high.

Don’t let sellers get away with abusive / deceptive tactics such as: being too pushy or persistent, “now or never” for best prices, the “too good to be true” offer, or elaborate stories about previous owners, the creator, sales history, or value.
Do be prepared to buy if the seller meets your terms and the price is right.

Don’t ever assume that the price is fixed.
Do inquire, always, as to whether the price is firm.

Throughout the world, price is a moving target, whether you are buying a comestible or a commodity. But Americans are brainwashed into believing that prices are sacrosanct. Our belief that bargaining is an exotic skill makes best-sellers out of self-help books with titles such as You Can Negotiate Anything.

The first step in buying something for less than the offering price is understanding that the buyer is always in control of the situation. This is a very liberating concept. No matter what price has been asked, no matter what offer has been made, no matter how persuasive the seller, remember that the buyer is always free to buy or not buy.

If you have only five minutes before the plane takes off, and you don’t have time to haggle, and you want the item, then you buy it. It’s that simple. If the price is already reasonable, and you don’t feel like going to the effort, and you like the person selling the article, and you want the item, then buy it. That simple.

This understanding implies that you have nothing to lose by attempting to negotiate the price. The option to negotiate is yours, if you have the time, the motivation, and the inclination.

You need negotiating skills to be a good persuader. You need persuasion skills to be a good negotiator. To get the best price, you need to get people to see that you deserve to buy an item for less. Negotiating and persuasion are inextricably related.

Make them want to sell to you

This is the beginning of price negotiations. To obtain the best price, making the seller want to sell to you is vital.

I can hear you saying, "But it’s already for sale. So I know they want to sell it to me." WRONG. They want to sell it to "Someone." The Someone could be anyone. But "anyone" is not your name. You are you, and someone else may be the "Someone" the seller had in mind. Get this straight, and you are well on your way to being an expert negotiator.

For any negotiation to result in outcomes to your benefit, the seller must move from viewing you as a simple "prospect" (prospective buyer) to viewing you as a distinct individual with unique characteristics and tastes who could be a valued customer. The seller must want you, and only you, to give that special item a good home. You can accomplish this far more easily than you assume. Become an active participant in the sale process. Stop seeing yourself as a victim and the seller as an opponent in a war. For starters:

bulletSmile for a longer time.
bulletlike the seller (walk the walk, talk the talk).
bulletGet dealers to "invest" in you (conversation, food, emotions).
bulletBe deserving. Price considerations are not gifts. You earn them.

It is easier to sell to a nice person than a nasty one, or someone who appears passively neutral. Sharks who look friendly dine better than sharks who look hungry. And while you are busy being cordial, don’t act dumb. You should look, talk, move, and comport yourself as a person who belongs where you are, transacting business. (See my previous article "How not to be a sucker" in issue #9). Do not make blanket statements like "I can’t afford it." Make helpful statements like "If only it were $10 ($50, $100) less. Then maybe I could afford it." If you want to buy, give the seller something to work with. If a seller invites you to sit down, you sit down. If they suggest coffee, you say "yes." Do not start imagining you are in a spider’s web. You have now gotten the seller to invest their time in you. The more time invested, the more you will appear deserving of a discount because, otherwise, all this time will have been wasted. The longer you sit, the more coffee you drink, the more you talk about auction prices and what you collect, and how long you’ve been collecting, the less willing the seller will be to let you walk away empty-handed. This is work, no more so for them than you. But how else will you earn the right to ask for a lower price? Do you think they are going to give it to you for free?

Stay Awake

  Buying, like selling, is an activity that requires you to be alert. No matter how sleepy, laid back, or indifferent the seller may appear, do not be misled. No one with goods to sell can afford to be casual about it. Casual dealers go broke. No matter the seller's behavior, if the dealer has been in business for a while, they are awake, watchful, and waiting for an opportunity to close the sale. You must be likewise. Many collectors make bad assumptions about this process, based on a misjudgment of the role psychology plays in the sales process. This is born of long-standing mistrust of sellers’ tactics and maintained through a studied incapacity for empathizing with sellers’ motives.

Bad Assumption #1:
Dealers are in business to lose money

The view that dealers will cheerfully reduce prices to the point that they make no profit from the sale is woefully out of whack with reality. Whenever a seller confides, "This is way below wholesale. I don’t know why I’m offering it to you at this price. I’m going to hate myself tomorrow," put a lock on your wallet. If you do not, you may end up with a bad case of "The Winner’s Curse." It goes like this: While in a small shop you spot an attractive item. You know something about this collectible type, but you are far from being an expert. After preliminary discussion, you make the owner an offer that you believe to be on the low side. He quickly accepts your offer. How do you feel as you walk out the door? If you are like most people, you will be suffering from "The Winner’s Curse" — a sinking feeling that you have been taken. Why else would the dealer have accepted your offer so quickly? Economists who have studied this behavioral phenomena suggest that a key factor in the winner’s curse is that one side has much better information than the other.

A good negotiator must consider the knowledge and likely strategy of the other side. But this is hard to do when our opponents know something we do not and can use the information to selectively accept or reject our offer. Plus, we consistently undervalue the importance of looking at a situation from the opponent’s standpoint.

To protect yourself in a negotiation, you need to develop the expertise to balance the quality of information. If you cannot get such information before making an offer, then ask yourself, "Will I be happy if the offer is accepted quickly?" If not, reconsider your offer.

In Istanbul several years ago, my husband made a terrible mistake in his attempt to get rid of a pest who was offering him a gold ring at an insanely low price. The jewelry dealer whined, "But, sir, isn’t there any price at all at which you’d buy it?"

My Howard responded, "There probably is, but I can’t do it. It would be an insult."

Immediately the dealer’s eyes lit up. "Ah, sir, insult me, insult me, please do." Thinking to put an end to the negotiation, my husband suggested one third the asking price.

"Done!" cried the dealer, and proceeded to sell us matching cufflinks. The point? Dealers are not in business to lose money. Therefore: when you are faced with a pro, it does not matter where you begin in a bargaining situation (high or low asking price). Trust me: they have figured the odds way before you showed up.

Ignore any pitiful tales the seller devises for the price and how much your efforts are sucking the life’s blood from her frail body. She is making money from the sale. Your job as a bargainer is to see that a) the seller works hard for that profit, and b) the profit is as little as possible. Do not spend your precious bargaining time weeping with the seller. And do not back away from your offer. The chances of any successful dealer actually selling anything of value for less than they paid is so remote that it is not worth considering.

What about estate sales? Auctions? Roadside antique havens? Going out of business sales? Flea markets? Are these opportunities for bargains? Again, no one is in business to lose money. Unless you know what price the seller paid for the goods, you will not be on equal footing with him. People who run estate sales and auctions are not fools. They call in the dealers and serious collectors early in the game, for the best pieces and the best prices. Most are fairly knowledgeable themselves. Wouldn’t you be if your livelihood depended on it?  

Bad Assumption #2:
Sometimes negotiating prices is impossible.

I recently heard a story about a Saudi who visited Neiman Marcus (or some equally swank store). In the fancy dress department he selected a number of expensive dresses, all on sale. When the clerk announced that the tally exceeded $8,000, the Saudi demurred. "Wait," he said, "you don’t mean to say that’s the price? I would like to speak to the buyer for the department." When the buyer appeared from behind the dressing areas the Saudi said "$6,000 is my offer. Cash."

The clerk was horrified. "But, sir, we don’t negotiate prices here." The buyer told the clerk to shut up while they both listened to the Saudi’s explanation.

"Of course I expect a discount," he said. "You have these clothes on sale already. That means you could not sell them at the original price. The fact that they are still here, and remain unsold at the sale price means that even that discount is not enough to move them. You don’t want them, and I do. I’ll give you $6,000 for the lot. Cash. This moment. Can you hope to do any better if you hold them and have to return them to the manufacturer who will give you half back, which will not appear on your account for months?"

"I accept," said the buyer. The shocked clerk remained silent, which was her training. But when the Sheikh added imperiously that he also expected them gift wrapped and delivered to his car, she almost fainted.

Later, the buyer explained. Original price = 10. Sale at 20% discount = 8. Actual price = 5. With cost of money and time value of money factored in, it is worth 4. Cash offer = 6. The buyer makes money. She turns over her inventory. She is happy to deliver the goods to his car.

These tactics, disparaged as "chiseling the last dime out of a sale" by non-bargainers, are just part of the game. The Saudi rightly surmised that once the offer was accepted, it was unlikely to be blown over an added perk.

Moral of the story: do not be dissuaded from negotiation by the sales environment. Focus on the current or potential sales price given the estimated cost of the goods. Retail stores and list prices are a pain in the challenge, but you can overcome them.  

Bad Assumption #3:
The "best price" can be had at predictable times of day (or from predictable people, or on certain products).

An example of assumption #3: to get the best price, make your offer late in the day when the seller wants to go home with a lighter suitcase. Or, people who look poor need money and are more willing to lower prices than people who look rich. Antiques (or houses or cars) are always negotiable in price. New (or mass produced or fair traded) products are not.

FALSE. The bargaining process is completely unpredictable because human behavior is unpredictable. You can increase the probability of things going your way if you are observant and have some basic understanding of buying and selling behavior. But that’s about it. Bargainers base their tactics on “rules of thumb” developed from years of observing humans in the wild. That experience, combined with some native cunning, produces a modicum of success

Bad Assumption #4:
You can always get it for less.

At times, bargaining is not going to happen. The seller, knowing the item is priced fairly, does not need to sell it for less, and refuses to haggle. Also, there are times when bargaining is both embarrassing and unethical. When artisans create work for you on the spot (and you agreed to the commencement of the process knowing the general price of the goods), don't haggle.

When I am dealing with craftspeople displaying their own wares, I find it difficult to be the first to suggest a lower price. I do not wish to insult the maker.

Disparaging the style, workmanship or beauty of goods within earshot of the creator will not earn you a cheery “hello” the next time you meet, let alone a future discount. I will always accept the opportunity to gain a discount if they initiate the process. But, on principle, I will not take the first step to drive down the price of handmade goods except to politely inquire, “Is that the best you can do?” or “Is that a firm price?”

I also do not believe in taking indecent advantage of the unwary, poor, or ignorant. I like getting bargains as much as the next collector. But I do not need to steal. Nor do I enjoy it, whether it is little old ladies, the young, or the powerless. I am after fair gain, not indecent gain.

Outfoxing foxes, however, is quite another matter. Culturally driven economic differences can wreak havoc with this principle, as witnessed by my haggling over ten cents with a Mexican cab driver, much to the chagrin of my husband. But after you take local custom and buying power into account, there still remains the human notion of fairness. I do not insist that sellers make nothing. Just something less than they could make if they sold it to “Someone.”

Bad Assumption #5:
You only bargain on price

One of the biggest mistakes collectors make is thinking only in terms of dollars. Negotiations can go well beyond a discounted sales price. Often sellers can accommodate requests for “give backs” or non-monetary considerations more readily than they can accede to requests for dollar discounts.

The seller can grant valuable considerations to you. What value would you place on certain kinds of information the seller has? If you buy something now, can they grant some favor to you in the future, whether a discount on your next purchase or a freebie? Can you combine this purchase with the granting of some other desire, such as to own a copy of a book or game or manual or poster? For example, if I buy a box of trading cards, can you throw in the nine-pocket protectors needed to hold the anticipated two to three completed sets plus a three-ring binder? If I buy one, will you give me a discount on the next one I buy? Can you give me some service or information I crave? Good customers deserve good treatment. And if you smile nicely in the process, you’ll have earned it.

Make me an offer

There is nothing mystical about making an offer. You can buy for less. The secret is strategy, a sense of personal security, and common sense.
Strategy is knowing what methods you want to use, what sources to pursue, and what items to buy. As a rule of thumb, consider the impact your offer will have if linked to the following variables:

bulletrelationship (your relationship to the seller)
bulletcontext (fancy art gallery vs. flea market)
bulletthe collectible in question (norms for selling)
bulletmethod of payment
bulletverbal and non-verbal cues

If your uncle or sister is the seller, you can usually expect a good price. And if not, could you bring yourself to haggle over the price? As a rule, the more distance (in age, culture, geography, gender, economic class, etc.), the more effort you will need to negotiate the price.

Fine art galleries and flea markets both capitalize on the display of unique items with varying quality and rarity. They offer the greatest opportunities for negotiating prices and the steepest discounting. Both fleas and fancy galleries set higher beginning prices to allow room for negotiation and to take into account the unsophisticated buyer. The potential for flexibility is often built into the system. The procedure for achieving best prices, however, differs in these two contexts. For the informal selling situations at flea markets, you can be direct, decisive, assertive, and be immediately successful. In the formal setting of a gallery, more indirect tactics are required and the sales process is longer.

Established dealers have a vested interest in placing significant pieces with serious collectors. The items will be well cared for, protected, and insured. The dealer will usually be given first crack when the collector wants to sell. And the collector will likely be adding to the collection in the future, hence needing the dealer again. It is well worth his while, therefore, to be fair in pricing. Flea market vendors, on the other hand, have no such needs or motives. Caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.

Some collectibles vary wildly in value, depending on who is selling and who is buying. Ephemera fall into this category. These are objects for which no clear collecting category exists, e.g., greco-roman antiquities, Carnival glass, military insignia. Other collectibles are listed in price guides: animation cels, stamps, comics. Some collectibles are routinely traded so that auction catalogs stand as a fair public historical record of prices: books, art, coins, furniture. It is important to know how dealers and other collectors view the collectible in question. If sharp and brutal bargaining is part of the scene, you must be prepared to follow suit.

Method of payment is important. Merchants who deal in cash have the option of not declaring their sales as well as being assured of immediate payment. Conversely, merchants who accept credit cards must pay a discount rate to their bank for that privilege; this cost of doing business can be converted to a discount if the collector is savvy. Take into account the consequences of buying in cash instead of check or credit card which leaves a paper trail. If you want to insure your collection, remember that paper can be critical to establishing value.

Listen for the golden phrases that signal a bargainer’s opportunity to begin negotiations. These include: “I could do better”; “Make me an offer”; “I could let that one go for a little less”; “I’ve had that one for a while”; “It’s got a couple of chips on the side”; “It’s not as colorful as some I’ve seen” (or other unrequested pointing out of flaws); “I’m trying to clear room for my next shipment, due in next week”; “I sure was hoping to end the day lighter / lighten the load / pack up fewer items” etc.; “Are you seriously interested in this one?”; and “What have you paid for these in the past?”

Buying on Purpose

A true negotiator thinks beyond the issue of best price to the concept of PURPOSE. Purpose in buying is on two levels. First, buying on purpose means that you are conscious of what you are doing. You are not unconsciously repeating a formula for a bargaining routine. But on another, deeper, level your purpose should reflect your goals. Your goals are things you wish to accomplish with your life -- ongoing efforts that give meaning to your life.

You can achieve a collecting goal only to find out you are not happy. Goals are important in getting us what we want (i.e., an item at lowest price or a scarce item). But goals are not equivalent to achieving ongoing satisfaction through purpose.

What do you want? What is your collecting purpose?

You can have goals with your collection that are unrelated to purpose. For example, you can have a goal to collect every item in a particular series, with none of them costing more than a certain amount. So what? Is this really the purpose of your collecting?

When they come to assess the value of your collection after your death, what would you rather they say? You got great prices on commonplace items — or — you built a great collection. Does it matter that you have every one of a certain something, if every one is in lousy condition?

To die a happy collector, regardless of what you spent, you need to have a buying purpose. Your buying purpose, if engraved on a fancy card which faces you each day when you brush your teeth, might read:

My Buying Purpose
is to help me get the good feelings I want
about the things I buy
and about myself*

*Wording here and concepts in this section adapted from The One Minute Sales Person by Johnson and Wilson, Morrow 1984.

Other useful references:

bullet“Why Negotiations Go Wrong” by Max Bazerman, Psychology Today June 1986
bulletSecrets of Power Persuasion by Roger Dawson, Prentice-Hall 1992 whose Nightingale-Conant cassette program Secrets of Power Negotiating is the largest selling business cassette program ever published.

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Articles by Jane Frank written for Strange New Worlds:

bulletHow to be a Sucker - why you paid too much, and how to avoid doing it again
bulletNegotiating the Rocky Waters of Collecting - learn how to bargain for price with dealers
bulletPossession Obsession - The Case Against Hoarding - are you building a collection or just a pack rat?
bulletTake the Diagnostic Test: Are You a Pack Rat?
bulletIs It Advertising or Is it Art? - You know what you like, but do you know what to call it? N.C. Wyeth and Rockwell were once scorned as "commercial" illustrators, but now their art is highly collectible.
bulletCollectibles as Gifts - the do's and dont's of giving collectibles
bulletHow to display your science fiction collectibles

Fantasy and Science Fiction Art Books by Jane Frank:
bulletThe Frank CollectionA legendary SF&F art collection, containing the largest assortment of fantastic art in the world — includes the most celebrated names in the field: Earl Bergey, John Berkey, Chesley Bonestell, Margaret Brundage, Frank Frazetta, H.R. Giger, Frank R. Paul, J.K. Potter, Boris Vallejo, and many others. 112 pages (all in color). Hardcover.
bulletThe Art of Richard Powers"I think Richard Powers was one of the most original artists to enter the science fiction field, which he shook up considerably ... I am happy to see this collection of Richard Powers's outstanding work." — Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Hardcover, 128 pages (all in color)
bulletGreat Fantasy Art Themes from the Frank Collect 128 pages (all in color), hardcover. Available in May, 2003. Order now and save.



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