An investigation into a weird piece of advice.  

By Jenny McCoy
December 12, 2018
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The internet, as we’re all aware, is full of odd advice. I was reminded of this recently as I was researching ways to save money at the grocery store and stumbled upon an article published on The Penny Hoarder, a personal finance website. The post, for the most part, had fairly standard counsel—use coupons, make more meals at home, buy in-season produce, etc.—though, buried towards the bottom, was the more unique recommendation to haggle down prices in the deli and bakery departments.

The article explained it this way: “Think the only place you can negotiate price is at garage sales? Think again. When it comes to the deli counter and bakery department, freshness is of ultimate importance. If a clerk isn’t able to move an item before it hits its expiration date, it will be tossed and the store will lose money.”

And then gave this advice: “If you notice any meats or baked goods that are at or close to expiration, ask to speak with a manager to see if you can get a discount for what is essentially a ‘clearance’ item.”

My initial reaction to this was: ?!? While I understand the rationale in theory, haggling at your local food mart sounds like a strange—and potentially inappropriate—thing to do in practice. After all, it’s a grocery store, not a garage sale! Yet once I learned this information, I couldn’t unlearn it, and I became increasingly curious about whether or not this is actually a thing.

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In my quest for answers, I first turned to grocery store chains. I emailed the media contacts at four popular food markets and posed the questions: does in-store haggling really happen? If so, is there a right and a wrong way to do it? Two declined the interview request, one said they asked around the company and no one had ever heard of the practice, and one provided basic information about “manager’s specials,” though nothing about customer-led haggling specifically. In sum, no dice.

I then turned to an on-the-ground approach and went to four local grocery stores myself—two Safeways, a King Soopers, and a Sprouts, all in Boulder, Colorado—to chat with the folks helming the deli and bakery counters. This proved much more insightful. Two bakery employees told me they’ve encountered multiple hagglers on the job. People try to haggle everything, one employee told me. Some people ask for discounts on baked goods that are older than a day, some people want dollars knocked off an especially large order, and some people ask for reduced-cost items because they claim they are donating them to a cause.

Haggling happens in the deli department as well, though in slightly different ways. People will buy a piece of salmon, for example, and then ask for the skin to be removed and the price to be reduced accordingly, one deli counterman told me. They’ll also claim that something is “wrong” with an item—like the package wasn’t sealed properly, or the meat wasn’t cooked properly—and thus request a discount.

Whether or not haggling is successful is up to the manager. If there was legitimately something wrong with a product, the store will do its best to remedy that, said a deli employee. But in most cases, hagglers are told “no.” That’s because it’s typically against store policy, and most stores will proactively reduce the price of soon-to-expire items anyways. That said, there are some exceptions. If you’re a regular customer who typically pays full price, the manager might throw you an extra discount every now and again, said one bakery worker. Or, if your favorite item was discontinued, you may get a sympathy discount on a different item, said another bakery employee. If you are going to attempt to haggle, it pays to be kind and courteous. Not surprisingly, yelling, demanding, and getting angry over prices is not a good strategy, said one employee. Also, repeat hagglers—particularly those who frequently demand discounts by claiming something is “wrong” with items—are not often rewarded, said another employee.

The bottom line: contrary to my initial hunch, haggling does indeed sometimes happens. Occasionally, it’s successful, especially if you’re a regular customer who typically pays full price. With that information, feel free to ask every now and again. Just don’t expect—and please don’t feel entitled to—a “yes.”

If you’re really hoping to pinch pennies at the store, a better bet is to look for items that are already marked down, typically denoted with a “manager’s special” sticker. This is a surefire way to get a discount while also saving yourself the time (and potential weirdness) that comes with haggling.

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