Is haggling un-Australian?

Like many freshly-minted Australians, my parents’ friends, the Ducs, have a healthy respect for money. They’re not afraid to shop around. Their daughter and I used to be fairly close—we went to Vietnamese school together—so I got to tag along when her mum took her computer shopping.

We traipsed from Donvale to Springvale, from Harvey Norman to the corner tech shop. Her mum wasn’t content with comparing price stickers; she’d wring out profit margins from the sales assistants, before making a move on the manager. After the third or fourth store, my friend was begging her to stop. I wriggled in my seat, equally mortified. Haggling and bargain-hunting, I thought, was something our parents did. It was so very un-Australian. I’d rather eat stinky shrimp paste than make a beeline for the sales rack of any clothing store.

But how can something so universal be considered un-Australian?

In developing parts of the world, haggling is a customary part of selling or buying. If you don’t attempt to bargain, not only will you end up paying ten times more than necessary, you’ll also invite ridicule. In societies where destitution is a real threat, the ability to haggle indicates that you are financially savvy and worthy of respect. If you can’t (or won’t) haggle, then you’re either a) a sucker who deserves to be conned out of their last dollar, b) too rich to care about money, or c) all of the above.

In a first-world country like Australia, however, haggling is nearly nonexistent. In its place is a system of predetermined prices for goods and services. For many, the convenience of such prices offsets the monetary value lost from not haggling. Hence, to haggle outside of socially acceptable circumstances is seen as peculiar if not taboo.

As a kid, I instinctively knew that haggling would make me stick out, so I rejected it in the same way I rejected fish-sauce-flavoured pork terrine sandwiches. As an adult, I still carry a vestigial aversion towards any overt form of bargain-hunting. Only a post-GFC, thrift-friendly climate, that I’ve begun to recognise haggling, etc. for what they are: tools for the smart shopper. Used appropriately, they can be of great help.

Perhaps one day, I’ll wear my bargain-hunting, price-shopping, haggling badge with pride. Until then, I’ll just smile awkwardly at the staff in Country Road (not Chapel Street GASP, thankfully) and inch towards the sales section one overpriced shirt at a time.

M.

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Buying a house on a single-person income is never easy, but must be thrifty did it anyway in 2009, when interest rates were at a record low. Now that interest rates are going up and house prices are going down, she's bracing herself for some serious scrooging...
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5 Responses to Is haggling un-Australian?

  1. I am so completely terrible at haggling. I just feel so guilty when I do it overseas. I think all the vendors think I’m the lamest person ever because they’ll give me a price, I’ll say it’s too much, they’ll ask how much I pay, and I take something pointless like $1 off the price. FAIL…

    I HAVE been told, however, that in the electronics places where they say that you can pay less for cash? They legally can’t refuse to give you the same price if you want to pay by credit card. I’ve not tested it, but it’s worth remembering for when my laptop inevitably craps itself for good ;)

    • must be thrifty says:

      Haggling overseas is hard work, but I’ve heard that the trick is to be polite about it. I haven’t done much of it, but when I did, I worked with someone else, using a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine.

      As for the credit card/cash thing, that’s news to me. Though I guess stores are legally entitled to add an extra 5% surcharge on your VISA/Mastercard/AMEX transaction. Uggh.

      • Rhys says:

        Polite + genuine interest + the fake walk away usually gets results, or at least a more realistic price. It’s hard, because if you don’t know a market, then you don’t know what the initial markup was, i.e. at Ben Thanh, I ended up paying 40% of the original price for knockoff Billabong teeshirts – 100,000 compared to 250,000, but I was able to haggle that down to 80,000 in Can Tho, bearing in mind that the market operating costs are much higher at Ben Thanh. I paid over the odds for something else in Ben Thanh because the girl was such a brilliant salesperson, in the end I had to throw my hands up and tell her she’d won.

  2. Rhys says:

    It’s weird because haggling here was seen as a sign of ‘cheapness’ and perhaps even rude in the past, which is stupid when you consider the profit margins Australian stores were making at the time. People seem to be taking a pride in it now, though. What about comparison shopping big ticket items with your smartphone in-store? I had a salesperson in JB knock $30 off the price of a computer game (Okami for the PS2) without blinking when I told her I’d prefer to buy it on eBay.

    • must be thrifty says:

      It’s definitely a sign of the times. I don’t know whether it’s social media, smartphones, or a change in consumer culture (due to the Woollies/Coles price wars?), but people are always asking for discounts, even for stuff like antibiotics.

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