Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bargain Basement

Haggle: even the word is ugly. It rhymes with nothing lovely or wholesome, only gaggle (a word that conjures up avenging geese), waggle (canine posteriors), and Fraggle (strung out, hermetic Muppets). What's there to love, or even to enjoy?

Plus, the martial reality of haggling -the feints and stabs, the desire to make a killing- sends me scurrying for cover. Haggling is like laser tag played in the daytime by slow people without laser guns, and as anyone who had the misfortune to witness my sole arcade outing can attest, I suck at laser tag. (Though to be completely accurate I ended up in the middle of the rankings thanks to my devilishly clever strategy of crouching in a corner for the duration of the game. Good stuff, crouching.)

Needless to say, I avoid haggling whenever and wherever possible, which has led to overpayment for a shocking array of goods and services. Rather than haggle, I seek out like-minded anti-hagglers, usually identifiable by their midwestern accents and advanced age. When I went to buy a car, I bought not from the dealership that dropped their price $5 below my lowest bid, but from the single dealership that didn't highball me in the first place. I want straightforward pricing and straightforward interaction, not half-veiled jockeying for cash.

Recently, though, I haggled. It was an accident, pure chance: after a year and a half in Indy, bored with running and running and running again, I was exploring joining a gym. My friend recommended hers, a fairly comprehensive outpost of a major national chain. It had pilates, step, a whole bunch of other classes, plus a pool. And she was paying $25 a month.

I went in on a guest pass and asked about pricing. The manager took me on a tour, gave me a slick, canned sales pitch. Then quoted me $60 a month. I gasped: my friend had never mentioned bargaining. I suspected I was seeing discrimination in action: my friend is tall, blond, and gorgeous -a definite asset for a gym looking to attract new members- whereas the only time I stop traffic is when I fail to merge before the lane ends. Was she getting the pretty girl rate? Was I handed the rate for schlumpy t-shirt wearers?

My eyes must have bugged out, because the manager quickly dropped me down to $50, then $40. I emitted some kind of dissatisfied squeal, and he cracked $35. "But," I said, still not bargaining, "my friend is paying $25."

His eyes darted from side to side. He looked her up on the computer. "That was...a special deal," he said.

"Can I get that special deal?"

"Well..." (long, confounding monologue on the rare and time-delimited nature of the deal).

I told him thanks and, sick of the deception, the misinformation, and the ickiness of it all, headed for the door.

Six hours later, my cell phone rang: $25. Unknowingly, I'd played the trump card of haggling: I'd walked away. I went back and signed a contract. I still feel dirty.

Why do I loathe this kind of interaction so much? I recognize that haggling is integral to the fabric of many cultures, that it's a profoundly human activity. I recognize that I would get eaten alive in the Middle East. I recognize, too, that deception is important to civilization, that it greases the wheels, that speaking truth to power is one thing but speaking truth to your mother is another. Maybe, too, it's not haggling that is most dishonest: we all have agendas, and perhaps it's disingenuous to pretend we don't.

Fortunately, I'm comfortable with fiction. Name your reasonable price.

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