Haggling over the cost of merchandise is a practice centuries old – a practice alive and well in the antiques market. For buyers, the temptation to ask for a better price is just too strong to deny. For sellers, coming down a bit on the price is often a good way to make a sale. It’s a practice that can benefit both buyers and sellers, but can, at times, be a bother and annoyance.
Since I’ve been writing this column, I’ve found no topic to be quite so controversial as haggling. Any column on haggling is almost guaranteed to be greeted by a critical letter from an incensed dealer or two. On the one hand, I find such letters a bit amusing because they seem to indicate that I’ve introduced the entire concept of haggling. I’m a few hundred years too young to make that claim. On the other hand, I understand the anger some dealers have over haggling. Not all customers are polite and some can be downright rude while trying to negotiate a better price. While I hope my columns anger no one, I do not apologize for what I’ve written about haggling. Like it or not, haggling has been a part of commerce for centuries, and it’s here to stay.
I’ve been on both sides of the haggling process. I consider myself primarily a collector, but I do have a retail sales license and have dealt in antiques for many years. I once had an antique shop. I’ve had booths in antique malls. I’ve sold antiques and collectibles on eBay and at traditional auctions. I’ve set up at antique shows and flea markets. I know what it’s like to be a dealer as well as a collector. Having been on both sides of the haggling process gives me insight into what it’s like for both the seller and the buyer.
I like to focus on the positive, but the negative is more instructive. Let me give you the dealer’s perspective by relating some of my less than pleasant experiences with buyers. Buyers can consider this a guide on what not to when seeking a better price.
At a recent flea market, I took some of the stoneware I’ve been culling out of my collection. Among the pieces was an eight gallon jug, circa 1890. I had bought the stoneware pieces long ago and wanted to clear them out, so I priced them very reasonably. The jug had a very small, old chip. In my area, such a jug in that condition is usually found priced at $45-$65. I priced mine at $38. One collector offered me $30 for the jug, nearly 25 percent less than the market price. A discount of 10 percent is about as much as a buyer can expect. I offered to come down to $35. In a rude tone of voice the collector announced, “Well it’s chipped! It’s not worth that!” She was entitled to her opinion of course, but I didn’t like the rude delivery. Needless to say, we didn’t strike a bargain. The lesson for buyers here is that rudeness will get you nowhere with most dealers.
Another piece I took to the flea market was a nice 1-gallon jar, circa 1900. It was a beautiful piece with a nice ochre glaze. I would generally expect to see such a jar priced at around $25-$35. I knew I’d probably paid about $8 for mine and priced it at $18. If it sold, it would be quite a profit for me and quite a good buy for buyer. A collector asked my best price. I offered her the piece for $15. She countered with $10, nearly 50 percent less than the asking price, which was already significantly below the value of the piece. I wasn’t willing to take less than $15, so there was no sale. In this case, the collector wasn’t rude, but her offer was unrealistic. Collectors shouldn’t expect dealers to give deep discounts. As a dealer, I’m also not fond of the counteroffer. When I’m asked for my best price, I give it. At that point it’s take it or leave it.
As a dealer, I’ve found myself on the receiving end of extreme rudeness from those who use such rudeness as a tactic to get a better price. Let me throw in a quick disclaimer here – the vast majority of collectors are very kind and polite. Remember, we’re exploring the negative side here. Over the years I’ve heard such comments as “That’s twice what that’s worth!” “In that condition, it isn’t worth anything!” “You’ll be lucky to sell that for half what I’m offering!” “It’s obviously a reproduction!” “That’s far too high!” Most often, the comments are made in a rude tone. I’m so accustomed to enjoying my encounters with buyers that the rude individuals are a bit of a shock. I find such comments insulting. I always try to price my items for a bit less than they can be found elsewhere. That way buyers will purchase from me and not the dealer next to me. I do sometimes handle reproductions, but I always clearly mark them “new” or “reproduction.” I’m well aware damage detracts from value, so when a piece is damaged, I price it accordingly. When someone comes along and criticizes my prices or my integrity, I’m not inclined to give them a better deal. Rudeness will get a collector nowhere with me and I’m sure most dealers feel the same.
It costs a lot more to deal in antiques than most collectors realize. I used to set up at a nice flea market in Princeton, Ind., about 15 miles from where I lived at the time. I went there because it was close, spaces were reasonably priced, there were a lot of buyers and sellers, and the flea market was well organized. It cost me $35 for a spot for two days – very reasonable considering some flea markets charge as much as $100. I was also out the expense of gas for three round trips, one to set up, two to sell. That’s 90 miles of driving, not an insignificant cost with high gas prices. There was also my time to consider and all the work. It takes me several hours to unpack all my collectibles for a flea market and just about as long to pack them up at the end. Then there’s the work I did at home, cleaning, pricing, and packing – days worth! If you’ve never set up at a flea market, take the amount of work you think it takes a dealer to set up, multiply it by 10, and you’ll have it about right. Add to this the time and cost of gathering pieces to sell and you’re looking at a lot of time and expense. I think it becomes understandable then, that dealers are not pleased by rudeness or ridiculously low offers.
There’s nothing wrong with haggling for a better price. As a buyer, I often haggle. As a seller, I accept it. It’s a great way for buyer and seller to come together, but it’s not a pleasant experience when one party or the other gets rude. Don’t hesitate to haggle, but avoid the mistakes made in the examples above. If you do your chances of success will be much increased.