Fordyce Maxwell: ‘We tend to be shy and backward, uneasy when the talk turns to deals done’

THERE is a failing that dare not speak its name in farming circles and it’s hard for sufferers to pass themselves off as real men.

We tend to be shy and backward, uneasy when the talk turns to deals done, bargains made and sellers done down. In short, we can’t haggle. After a tentative “What about a discount?” we take no for an answer and pay the asking price.

We know we’re wrong. Relatives and friends show no embarrassment when knocking back an asking price for fertiliser, a tractor, fuel, or in even more unlikely circumstances – like the one who bargained with a jeweller for an engagement ring while his fiancée stood by, smile fixed.

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For some, haggling is the best part of any transaction, the satisfaction of getting the better of someone.

A line in Some Experiences Of An Irish RM by Somerville & Ross – RM was a residential magistrate in a long-ago Ireland and there’s a lot of fox hunting, but it’s a funny book – sums that up. A horse dealer names a price and the newly arrived RM agrees to pay it. In the seller’s eyes “there dawned the beginning of a lifelong regret” that he hadn’t asked much more.

He’d not only lost potential profit, he’d lost the fun of haggling. It was fun I could never see. But life is real, life is earnest, and if you can’t haggle in business you’re permanently on the back foot. Or, increasingly, in everyday life.

Through gritted teeth, the principle we have to adopt is that they are out to fleece us. Arguing with insurance companies about premiums might not be haggling in the face-to-face sense, but pointing out the error of their ways does work. Or at least reduces the increase they tried to impose for – in the past few months – car, house and travel. It is quite satisfying to go from sap of the week, their first offer, to “valued customer entitled to substantial discount”.

Some things are difficult to haggle about successfully. Mortgage rates, fuel and food probably top the list. Does “shopping around” and changing supplier count as haggling? Probably not, and in my experience any advantage from the hassle of changing fuel supplier is lost within three months.

Is negotiating a house price haggling? When does it become cheating, when, at the last minute, the potential buyer knocks thousands off their offer? It hasn’t happened to us, but has happened to friends. One person’s smart deal is another’s sharp practice.

Whatever the goods, it seems that haggling is becoming more common. As one store owner said recently: “If you’re thinking of buying furniture for £1,000, we’d be extremely reluctant to let you leave without doing a deal to get a large part of it.”

But it’s not easy. I’ve decided my technique will be to find out the price, make one offer below that, and if it’s not accepted, walk away. I start tomorrow.

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