With jobs getting scarcer, stocks on a roller coaster and economists talking recession, not many people feel like paying full price for, well, anything.
But there are still spring styles rolling out on the shelves, flat-screen TVs to salivate over and that matter of getting a new couch after your cousin spilled red wine on your old one.
So what's a cheapo who still wants new stuff to do? Haggle.
That's right, the age-old tactic more frequently observed in foreign bazaars and rug stores is returning to the malls and Main Street. As stores feel pressured to move merchandise, and consumers feel the pinch of a slowing economy, prices are becoming more negotiable.
"Haggling is at an all-time high," said Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of consumer behavior company America's Research Group.
Surveys conducted by Beemer show that 67 percent of customers have haggled in the last three months, up from 55 percent three months ago, Beemer said.
Haggling is more common at independent retailers than at big chain stores, Beemer's research shows. Retail experts say that's largely because small-store owners and managers generally have more leeway in cutting deals than do employees at large national chains.
That may be starting to change, however. Big retailers have given sales associates greater latitude to accept lower prices, especially on big-ticket items such as electronics, said Richard Giss, a partner in Deloitte & Touche's consumer business division in Los Angeles.
For chain stores, haggling "hurts the bottom line, no question," he said. But "it hurts a lot less now than if the merchandise sits around unsold and you have to advertise greater markdowns later on."
Haggling isn't for the fainthearted. It requires looking a salesperson in the eye and admitting that you can't - or won't - pay full price.
"A lot of people are squeamish about haggling," said Christine Silvestri, who runs Urban Shopping Adventures, a Los Angeles provider of shopping tours. "It's not built into our culture."
The key difference between success and failure can be the tone with which you approach a retailer, she said. Ask rudely or forcefully and the deal is probably off. Silvestri recommends haggling on merchandise that has been sitting on shelves for a while, because retailers are more anxious to move it.
Being prepared is also key, said Joe Meindorfner, a frequent haggler. At Guitar Center, Meindorfner recently bought a $1,400 sound system for his band for $800. Although music stores routinely mark down big-ticket items, Meindorfner estimates he saved at least $300 beyond the standard discount.
He advises hagglers to research prices, and be prepared to tell salespeople what a competitor is offering. "Know what you want and do your homework."
Playing tough is good, but badgering might not be the best strategy for inexperienced hagglers, said Eli Portnoy, a Los Angeles brand strategist and second-generation haggler.
Portnoy said that the more quietly you negotiate, the more likely a manager will accede. No shopkeeper wants to have every shopper start dickering once they see someone else getting a bargain.
Aly Scott, a personal shopper whose company, StyleChic, gives VIP shopping tours, uses several tactics. And although Scott mostly shops boutiques, she'll occasionally ask for discounts at department stores such as Bloomingdale's or Saks. Those stores often send special deals to loyal customers, so Scott will ask salespeople if there are any such promotions going on.
She'll also ask if the store has recently printed any discount coupons in newspaper ads or mailers, or sent discounts to loyal shoppers. The salesperson will often extend this discount to shoppers, she said, even if they don't have the coupon in hand.
Some chain stores such as Best Buy and Circuit City will match or discount competitors' advertised prices. Home Depot offers to beat a competitor's price by 10 percent, but salespeople aren't allowed to negotiate beyond that, spokeswoman Kathryn Gallagher said.
One thing is certain: There's no harm in asking. And shop owners probably won't be surprised if you ask for a bargain.
TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL HAGGLING
• Be nice.
• Retailers won't sell you anything if they don't think you appreciate their merchandise.
• Don't ask for a price that's too low.
• Flatter them first.
• Buy three, get one free? If you're buying several items, ask whether the merchant will throw in an additional item free or at a discount.
• Cash is king. Small, independent stores and boutiques will often agree to waive the sales tax if you pay cash.
• Look at the sale rack. Merchants are eager to move things on the sale rack, which means they're ripe for haggling. On the flip side, don't ask for a bargain for products in high demand.
• Timing is everything. Haggling works well in between seasons, when stores want to move their merchandise to make room for the new stuff. It's also good to try late in the day, when salespeople are looking to put a little more cash in the till.
• Always ask. Chain stores often advertise discount coupons that may not be promoted within the store. Ask about these; you probably don't need the coupon or ad to get the discount.
• Loyalty counts. Merchants prize regular customers. If you do a lot of business at a particular store, be sure to ask for a deal now and then.
LOS ANGELES TIMES