Freed: Big Tech has resurrected the ancient art of haggling

It’s as if our biggest technology companies are all becoming rug vendors.

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My year-long “discount” subscription to an online publication was ending and I worried the price might soar without warning, so I phoned to inquire.

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Sure enough, the salesperson told me my “introductory” rate was automatically rising from about $100 a year to near $400.

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“Wow, that’s expensive!” I said, shocked. “I’d like to cancel.”

“Well, sir,” she broke in instantly, “as happens, today we have a special promotional rate you might be eligible for. Let me go check.”

She “muzaked” me and disappeared for a minute, probably to file her nails and kill time. Then she returned to say I could have the subscription for $140 instead of the “standard” $400.

I know inflation’s up almost 10 per cent, but they had still boosted the price by more than a third, so I declined again.

“OK, sir, I’ll cancel it,” she said flatly.

“Thanks,” I murmured, and said goodbye.

But just as I was hanging up, she broke in again.

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“Wait, sir! I’m allowed to ask a supervisor if we can possibly do better. Can you wait several minutes and I’ll see what I can do?”

Sure, I replied, and she disappeared again, perhaps to have a coffee and kill more time. I’ve always suspected that phone line “supervisors” are like the Wizard of Oz, mythical figures who don’t exist.

Four minutes later, she was back with enthusiasm to say the supervising wizard had agreed to extend my current rate of $100 for another year.

So we signed off, the latest of several recent episodes I’ve had with an ancient art that seems to be returning for many online products: bargaining.

I’ve experienced this with several electronic products and services I’ve renewed recently — from my phone and cable plans to online magazines where I’ve found myself haggling like a Middle East rug merchant.

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When I was a kid, bargaining was common in stores, and some older relatives negotiated like plea-bargaining criminal lawyers just to buy underwear.

Haggling went out of style soon after, but in our inflationary times this ancient practice seems to be back in the most unexpected of industries.

Big Tech. It’s as if our biggest technology companies are all becoming rug vendors.

As numerous websites explain, you can often reduce your monthly tech bills or increase your “free minutes” or gigs by just phoning and asking.

It reminds me of the last place where haggling routinely happened: car dealerships. Until 20 years ago, car salesmen were high-pressure artists who talked as fast as … well, car salesmen.

“Let me show you this, baby!” they’d prattle. “It’s got 493 horsepower, four-on-the-floor and does zero to 60 in 7.3 seconds.

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“I’m letting it go on special today, for you! But come back tomorrow and the price could be anything.”

You spent the afternoon haggling over bewildering optional “packages” you didn’t want, like white-wall tires, clunky car phones and anti-tank rocket fire armour.

Occasionally, the salesman disappeared into the manager’s office to emerge with a new offer “below list price” — though no one had paid list price in the history of car sales.

The manager’s office was a windowless room customers couldn’t enter, where supposedly secret negotiations took place. I always figured there was no one there but the salesman, drinking coffee and filing his nails.

In recent years, high-pressure car hustlers have been replaced by no-pressure salesmen, so laidback they could sell cheese in a monastery.

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Instead, tech companies are taking their place, with “supervisors” replacing “managers.”

I’ve never been a good bargainer in poorer countries, where I can afford more than whoever I’m haggling with. But now that I’m bargaining with tech giants, I know they can afford more than me.

Nowadays I wish I could bargain for chicken, lettuce and other supermarket items. I want to tell the cashier “I’ll offer you $5.35 for that cheddar instead of $8.99 — take it or leave it” — and eventually split the difference at $7.

But Provigo doesn’t encourage this at their crowded cashes, and neither do customers behind you.

There’s irony in seeing futuristic tech giants haggling like ancient tea traders. Maybe that’s because they have the same bewildering options car salesmen once bamboozled us with.

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There are endless complex internet packages and “bundles” featuring different super-speeds (with added fibre-optics!); phone plans with reduced long-distance options from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. on weekends and Lent; unlimited, yet limited texting plans, and sometimes even “FREE INSTALLATION AND ACTIVATION!”

If you decide to try negotiating, expect to spend an hour haggling back and forth, but be extremely polite and never accept the first offer. Also, have something to read when they go “off to see the Wizard.”

That said, I’m starting to think no one knows the real price of many online plans anymore. Sometime, somewhere, someone did but they died, or quit and never passed it down, so now everyone’s just guessing — like a tribe of cavemen who’ve lost the secret to fire.

So remember: No matter how good a deal you eventually get, you probably could have done better.

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