As antique collectors we not only like old things, we like the old way of buying and selling them; in an unregulated market. There’s no list price, the cost of everything is determined partly by precedent and partly by the buyer and seller in a dance that is called dickering or haggling.
People have been haggling prices ever since the beginning of trade. In some societies, it is expected, you never pay the asking price for anything, even in restaurants. In our Western society, we are used to buying from third party resellers who have high overhead and set prices; you either pay it or you shop around for a better deal. But in the antiques and collectables market a buyer is often dealing directly with the owner of an object that isn’t readily available somewhere else so haggling is commonplace. The process can be fun but, if it’s not handled correctly, it can become frustrating and tiresome for both parties.
Haggling is a skill, a form of negotiation. Getting To Yes by Roger Fisher, William Ury and William Paton is one of the best books written on negotiation. It focuses on high level stuff but the basic principles apply just as well to every day price haggling. In a nutshell what these three experts from the Harvard Negotiating Project tell us is that negotiating is about achieving a mutual agreement, not making the other party bend to your will. To do this you should focus on the outcome instead of the other person, use objective criteria to defend your position and have a BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) in place so you can walk away instead of giving in.
So now let’s look at how this may work in the antiques market.
There are basically three different venues for buying and selling antiques. We have auctions, retail stores and finally yard sales, flea markets and classified ads which I lump together as one because that is where buyers are usually dealing directly with owners who are not in the retail business.
The first provides the fewest opportunities for negotiating, the latter has the most. Having a basic negotiating strategy in place will help in any case.
Before you decide to buy or sell anything you should have a good idea of what a fair price is. This isn’t easy without a few years of experience. As I explained in a previous article on values; you can’t rely on catalogues, TV shows, what people are asking on-line or what your friends think, you need to do your own research. It takes time but if you are serious about collecting something, or selling to collectors, you need to know the local market. Talk to people in the business, go to live auctions, browse the stores and check out the flea markets, educate yourself.
Once you have a sense of what people are buying and approximately what they will pay then you can decide what you are willing to pay or settle for. You now have your BATNA and objective criteria to use in negotiation.
Remember to focus on the outcome; keep the process friendly and respectful. Words can have a big effect. When a prospective buyer picks up an object with a price of X and says “I’ll give you Y for this” the seller could feel insulted, not just because Y is nowhere near X but because the buyer is taking control out of the seller’s hands. It’s better to say “would you take Y for this?” or “I’ll offer you Y for this”. That keeps the seller in control and he or she will be more likely to agree or make a counter offer.
It’s also better to start with open ended questions, ones that don’t have a simple yes or no answer. Questions such as “What can you tell me about this?” or “This is nice, where did you get it?” will start a conversation. That way you establish a relationship before you negotiate.
If, as a seller, you get an offer that you don’t like, either because it’s way too low or is clumsily delivered, you might be tempted to say No but that may close the door to negotiation. If you are willing to negotiate, focus on the outcome and always give a counter offer. Another way to reject an offer without saying No is to use body language, or what is known as The Flinch. React like you’ve just been hit in the face with a snowball. An exaggerated flinch will be comedic, the buyer knows you’re playing; you’ll both laugh and get on with it. A small flinch may be taken more seriously but either way the conversation can continue.
A lot of buyers love to haggle but make the mistake of haggling for everything. I have spoken to countless people who tell me they’ve given up selling to the public because they’re tired of customers trying to talk them down even when the price is already low. If you see something you want, and the price is right, why not just buy it? Do this a couple of times with the same seller and you will have established a relationship that will make them more amenable to negotiate the price on something else. Also, continually haggling over small items gets really tiresome for sellers, save the haggling for more significant items.
All this is fine in a personal transaction but what about in a retail store? The vast majority of antique stores are multi-vendor or consignment, the buyer has no direct contact with the owner of the item and the store owner has fixed costs, so has less room to negotiate. Every store is different but most will have a policy so always ask first what it is and respect it. All the above points will then apply.
Besides having overhead, stores are required by law to collect sales tax. Buyers generally hate paying the tax, especially on used items but it’s a tricky negotiating point. Sales tax is a fixed cost the retailer must bear one way or another. You cannot offer to pay in cash under the table to avoid tax without assuming the retailer is dishonest so that is not a good tactic. It is fair to negotiate to have the tax included in the price but it is a touchy subject, usually it’s better to not include it in negotiations.
Auctions are a whole different game; they’re really a complex set of negotiations among a lot of of people and the owner of the item usually isn’t directly involved. On some on-line auctions buyers can deal directly with owners and then, many of the above points can apply.
Some people hate haggling; they’d rather deal with set prices and we should all respect that too, but if a negotiation is in order, doing it correctly will yield better results, and make everybody happier.