When is the price right?

A woman sifts through rings jumbled together in a jewelry pan. It's a hot and lazy Sunday afternoon, and the vendor tending this booth at the Georgetown Flea Market in Arlington, Va., begins to load his wares back into his truck.

The woman, Alice Bennett of Placerville, Calif., in town with her church group, picks up a ring and squints at it in the sunlight.

"How much for this?"

The answer comes swiftly, without hesitation: Three dollars.

She fishes around, finds another and looks back up at the vendor:

"How about two for $5."

Done and done. She hands him a crisp bill, slides the rings on and off and smiles, satisfied.

"You never know if you don't ask," she says, shrugging her shoulders.

Her husband, Bob, agrees. "If you pay the first thing they ask for, they think you're an idiot," he says. "Price is arbitrary."

That is to say: Price is negotiable.

And it makes us wonder: What isn't negotiable? And, more important, why do we negotiate the things we do?

When you negotiate to save $1 &

an amount that won't even buy you a bottle of water from the man hawking them at the flea market &

is it really about price?

Or is it about principle? Or pride? Or, heck, is it just entertainment?

The answer depends on your personal preference. Because negotiating &

when deciding a child's curfew, asking for a raise or buying a car &

is, well, personal. And it's a skill that most of us, whether we're gun shy or overzealous, could stand to improve.

Negotiation experts will tell you that Alice Bennett made a fundamental error in her flea market bargain: She gave a number too early in the game.

"You have no idea at all what he's willing to sell for," says Jim Thomas, founder and chief executive of Common Ground Seminars, a McLean, Va.-based negotiation training company. He's right: It's hot at the flea market; it's late in the afternoon. What if the vendor just wants to make a quick sale and go home? Suppose he's had those rings for months and is willing to sell two for the price of one?

And yet Bennett did something many of us are reluctant to do: She asked. And when you ask, you receive.

Unless, of course, you get "no" &

a word that often connotes failure. (And fear of failure is a big reason many Americans are uncomfortable with negotiating, Thomas says.)

The key is to understand that "no" is just an opening position. Children understand this intuitively.

"Adults believe that 'no' is forever," says Herb Cohen, author of "Negotiate This! Caring, But Not T-H-A-T Much" (Warner Business, 2003). "Children believe that 'no' is getting a bad reaction at this particular point in time. They think, 'Let me try five minutes later.' If the answer is still 'no,' they try again 10 minutes later. They persist, they persevere, they are relentless."

Kids also aim high, something adults are reluctant to do. That Mustang convertible your daughter wanted for her 16th birthday? As if. But instead you give her your old Saturn &

hardly a Mustang, but then you weren't even planning to give her a car. Your daughter, happily revving the engine, knows intuitively this basic principle: Ask for more, get more.

There is a limit, of course.

Fred Glogower sells vintage signs and lithographs at the Georgetown Flea Market. He's an affable guy who likes to interact with shoppers, so he's happy to knock some money off the sticker price to make a sale.

"But if they just aggravate the dickens out of you, you say, 'Go on, get out of my booth,' " he says. "If it's already $3 and they keep saying, 'Can I have it for a dollar?' &

at some point, it just gets kind of annoying."

It's important, then, to imply some flexibility.

Consider salary negotiations for a new job. The prospective employer (ideally) makes the first offer: $100,000. You know you're supposed to aim high, so you counter. Say, $200,000. That's high. Really high.

Do you say, "I'll accept $200,000 and nothing less?"


"You'd say, 'I was thinking $200,000, but maybe there's something about this that I don't understand,' " says Roger Dawson, author of "Secrets of Power Salary Negotiating: Inside Secrets From a Master Negotiator" (Career Press, 2006).

With this approach, you raise your expectations (or rather the employer's perception of your expectations), but you also open a dialogue &

which is critical to good negotiation, experts say.

If "no" is simply an opening position, then dialogue is crucial to move past it. In this case, experts say, dialogue means asking probing questions &

"Why 'no'? What could be done to change that? Have there been exceptions where the answer has been 'yes'? &

and listening closely to the answers.

"Now you're in the driver's seat, because now you're asking questions," says Richard Shell, author of "The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas" (Portfolio, 2007).

Still, even when questioning, there's a distinction between being assertive and being on the attack: You don't want to alienate the other person.

"Be a person that has real thoughts, real perceptions, and share them," Shell says. "You get a little relationship cooking that's really you and really them."

Ron Chubin, a regular at Glogower's sign booth at the flea market, knows this. He's a self-described awful negotiator &

"if the price is halfway decent, I'll say 'okay' and buy it," he says &

but he routinely gets discounts on his sign purchases because he stops to talk with Glogower. Until recently, the two didn't know each other's names, but simple conversation was enough to establish a little goodwill.

Charm and popularity are all well and good &

but so is research.

Suppose you've been slapped with a $30 late fee because you missed a credit card payment. You call customer service to negotiate a break.

The representative tells you &

surprise! &

"no." So you start asking questions: "Has anyone ever gotten a late fee waived to your knowledge? Was it for any reason?"

Ideally, you've done your homework &

online research, talking to family and friends &

so you know your request is fair and with precedent.

And if you're told no one has ever had a late fee waived, then you pull out your research, Shell says: " 'I've got examples of six people on the Web who say they got their late charges waived. Are they lying?' "

Homework is particularly crucial for such tasks as car buying. The auto business, it seems, is one place where even the most timid customers know they need to negotiate (although companies such as Saturn have adopted no-haggle pricing policies because negotiation is so unpopular).

At the dealership, "knowledge is power," says Phil Reed, senior consumer advice editor of Edmunds.com, a Web site that tracks auto trends. "Smart negotiation is based on as much information as you can get."

That means finding how much similar cars retail for elsewhere and how much demand there is for the vehicle. Learn about hidden incentives: for instance, whether there's "dealer cash" on the vehicle, money that the manufacturer gives the dealer as a marketing incentive.

"You can't demand it. It's not your money," Reed says, "but you could say, 'Look, I know there's $2,000 on this. How about we split it halfway?' "

If negotiation is interpersonal, a continuum of dialogue and knowledge, it's also about power. And power stems from options.

So who has more options?

Once you open a dialogue and begin negotiating with someone, you've not only invested in that person, you've also put yourself at risk of losing.

And who likes losing?

Ergo, the importance of aiming high: Because you might actually get what you ask for and, if you make some small concessions along the way, the other person will feel as though he's winning some, too.

In the end, of course, negotiation is about the outcome. But to get to that outcome, we must invoke pride and principle and, yes, entertainment &

or the thrill of testing boundaries. All these yield war and peace, later curfews and bigger allowances, better cars and two flea market rings for $5.

It's taking control of your destiny. And that's a pretty good deal.

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