Consumers display negotiating nerve

A man and woman shake hands

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: We're in what you might properly call a buyer's market. We saw it at Christmas with retailers all but giving things away just to get customers into their stores. And the worse the economy gets, the more it's true.

It doesn't apply everywhere, of course. But if you want a better deal on your cable bill or your broadband Internet, nowadays all you have to do is ask.

From Philadelphia, Joel Rose reports.


JOEL ROSE: My friend Amy Voloshin is not what you'd call an intimidating negotiator.

Amy Voloshin: I'm not really comfortable negotiating things. The only thing I've ever negotiated was my salary.

Amy says she wasn't even trying to negotiate with the sales guy at her local gym. But that two-year contract . . . it was a big sticking point.

Voloshin: I think I frowned. Then all of a sudden, it became a one-year commitment.

Amy got the shorter commitment -- and unlimited yoga -- for less than she expected.

TONY KIM: This is all upper body here . . .

Tony Kim shows me around City Fitness in Philadelphia, where he's director of sales. Kim says the gym might have lost a few dollars on Amy. But it got a happy new customer who might spread the word to her friends.

Kim: Hopefully, they'll come and see us. And see how just how honest we are, and how friendly we are. And they actually join, too.

The evidence is strictly anecdotal. But experts say consumers nationwide are taking advantage of the recession by negotiating better deals on all kinds of stuff, from flat-screen TVs to cosmetic surgery to the rent on their apartments.

VICTORIA PYNCHON: I think that if you reach the right person, you can negotiate anything in this economic climate.

Victoria Pynchon is a Los Angeles attorney and blogger who specializes in mediation. She says successful negotiators do lots of research ahead of time. And they also make sure they're talking to someone in a position to make a deal. Often that's not the first person who answers the phone. Pynchon says it helps to know the industry jargon.

Pynchon: I've found that the two words "customer retention" are a magic carpet ride to a good consumer deal.

They certainly worked for Alan Weinkrantz, who runs a public relations firm in San Antonio. You might have seen him on "Good Morning America." He's become something of a folk hero since calling up AT&T's customer retention department in December.

ALAN Weinkrantz: I kind of stretched a little bit. I said, things are really, really tough. I may need to disconnect our phones. Can you work with me? All of a sudden I had a 40 percent savings, and I was shocked.

It turns out that phone and cable companies will go to great lengths to hold on to their customers.

CRAIG Moffett: The last thing you want to do is lose a customer relationship. Because, a good customer is a future revenue stream for years and years.

Craig Moffett is an analyst at the financial research firm Sanford Bernstein.

Moffett: This is not charity. The best way to get a company to work with you is to acknowledge that you're willing to give something on your end.

Moffett says you might want to make a longer-term commitment, or agree to bundle all of your phone, video and data services together with one provider. Building on his success with the phone company, Alan Weinkrantz started looking for other places to save money.

Weinkrantz: If the world's largest telecommunications company is willing to do this, maybe I oughta start going through the budget and looking at other things.

But there may be some things you just can't negotiate. Weinkrantz tried and failed to talk down the price of some shirts at Neiman Marcus. Lawyer Victoria Pynchon has had trouble negotiating with retailers, too.

Pynchon: I have to admit, I tried that at Nordstrom, and I got nowhere. But I've done fairly well at Bloomingdale's.

Pynchon says she got 40 percent off a Burberry watch. And all she had to do was ask.

In Philadelphia, I'm Joel Rose for Marketplace.

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