Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Monday, 4 May 2009 00:01 UK

'I'll give you a tenner for that'

By Kevin Peachey
Consumer affairs reporter, BBC News

Crowds on Oxford Street, London
Shoppers have been finding their voice in stores during the recession

How do you deal with people who try to argue down a price? According to one charity shop manager: "They try to haggle, so I put the price up!"

Haggling might not be successful with good causes, but profit-chasing retailers are becoming more accommodating with those consumers who give it a try.

And during the downturn there is increasing evidence that shoppers are looking to create their own bargains by playing salesmen at their own game.

The ancient art of haggling is simply parting with less cash than the original asking price. It is a key part of the shopping experience, especially in markets, in some parts of the world.

And, as UK consumers develop their own skills, computer programmers are studying how an automated haggling system might evolve online. They claim that within two years, mobile phones will be able to haggle for us.

Striking a deal

Former bank worker Derek Arden is not a fan of round numbers, it seems. He is the co-author of "117 Handy Haggling Hints".

Derek Arden
Derek Arden has written extensively about how to negotiate bargains

Touring some stores with me, he explains who might want to engage in a personal price war.

"The people who do it tend to have fairly competitive personalities," he says, flashing a smile in the direction of a sports shop attendant.

"It can be a drain on your time and energy if you do not enjoy it."

To the casual observer it seems a fairly easy art. In each store he attempts to engage the shopkeeper in the most friendly and interesting conversation they've had that day. On occasions, it can tilt towards flirtatiousness.

Throughout the chat he builds up enough knowledge to finally offer a deal or ask for a discount, similar to a salesman operating in the opposite direction.

Do your research before heading out to the shops
Haggle for products with a big profit margin
Pick someone with authority to do business with
Smile, use humour and soft language
Consider shopping at the end of the day

But for the successful haggler, this is the end of the trading process.

"Information is power. Everything is negotiable," he explains, sipping an americano coffee which I bought at full price.

When haggling you need to choose a specific target, in terms of both the seller and the product. Researching a typical price on the internet is a good start. Spying who in the store might have the authority to offer a discount is another of Mr Arden's suggestions.

But picking items that have a big profit margin for the retailer tends to be the best tip of all.

Price is right?

In Monty Python's film 'Life of Brian', the lead character struggles with the concept of haggling when he buys a false beard which he claims is "for the wife".

No, no, no. It's not worth 10. You're supposed to argue: 'What? Ten for that, you must be mad!'
Monty Python's Life of Brian

It is a scene met with cringing recognition by UK holidaymakers who can find the routine tough work in overseas markets.

But mostly without realising it, the UK shopper has become more comfortable with haggling by asking stores to match the prices they have found online. Price comparison websites are now part of the armoury for any money-saving consumer.

Most people searching for deals will ask, without embarrassment, for money off a slightly damaged product, or for a discount when paying with cash.

But it is not just consumer goods that have been the targets of hagglers.

In a report on falling rents, property website Globrix claimed that tenants were haggling over their tenancy agreements.

"It is not just a surplus of properties to let that is driving down rents — savvier tenants are also playing a role," says Zaza Patterson, lettings manager at Carter Jonas estate agents.

"In some areas, where stock is particularly high, tenants, aware that they are spoilt for choice, have become very assertive over rents and are actively haggling. Tenants hold all the trump cards and, increasingly, they know it.

"To avoid void periods and attract tenants, many landlords are increasingly offering incentives. Some are offering a free month's rental, others are including utility bills in the rent. You also have situations where broadband may be offered within the rent. Different landlords are doing different things to ensure they stand out."

Artificial intelligence

Even though more of us are becoming more confident in haggling over what we buy or rent, it remains rare to see day-to-day in the shops.

Nick Jennings
Nick Jennings is developing a computer-based haggling program

Part of this is cultural - the result of the British reserve. So, wouldn't it be nice if a computer program could overcome our embarrassment and do it for us?

Nick Jennings, a professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, is creating a breed of artificial intelligence that can negotiate on our behalf.

"Throughout history negotiation is how we have traded. The fixed price is a relatively recent phenomenon," he explains.

He is developing software, with an embedded algorithm, that has the ability to adapt to the various bits of information it is fed by suppliers.

In practical terms, this will mean the consumer can tell a computer what he or she wants to buy and the maximum they are willing to spend.

The program then does the donkey work. It will consider what offers are being made by different suppliers and use various tricks of negotiation.

"It won't just try to knock 10% off the price. It will be tough with some and easier with others, as well as taking into account reputation and trust," he says.

It will require suppliers to sign up, but Professor Jennings argues that those that don't will be missing from the marketplace and so it is not in their interests.

The software is currently in prototype form, but he believes that in 12 to 18 months it could be an application on mobile phones.

Haggling might become as easy as sending a text message.

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