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Shoppers bring bargaining skills to mall

Desperate discounts, extended return policies making for great deals at the checkout counter.

With holiday sales shaping up to be the lowest in years, possibly the worst since the industry began annual comparisons in 1969, retailers say they’re taking consumers’ demands for good deals seriously.

AP FILE PHOTO

NEW YORK — If you’re looking for an extra bargain before the holidays, you may only have to ask.

With holiday sales shaping up to be the lowest in years, possibly the worst since the industry began annual comparisons in 1969, retailers say they’re taking consumers’ demands for good deals seriously. Some are extending return policies, while others are matching competitors’ prices. Many are volunteering on-the-spot discounts and even letting customers haggle prices well down from what’s marked in a desperate bid to make the cash register ring.

“You’d have to be a moron not to ask for a discount,” said Stephen Hoch, a retailing expert at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

More and more consumers are doing just that, treating a trip to the mall like a visit to the used car lot.

Allen Chen, a part-time cashier at a J. Crew store in White Plains, N.Y., said shoppers with two-month-old receipts are asking for partial refunds for items now on sale. Normally, the store’s policy is to refund the difference between an item’s purchase price and a later sale price only if it goes on sale within seven days of the purchase.

“When I tell them it is past the seven-day policy, they tell me that they will just return it and re-buy it” at the sale price, he said, adding that his store managers are now allowing customers to do so most of the time.

Shoppers are also being far more savvy about asking retailers to match a competitor’s lower price.

While shopping for Blu-ray discs at a Los Angeles Best Buy, Luis Levy used his cell phone to check the price at nearby competitors. Each disc was $10 cheaper at Circuit City or Wal-Mart. Best Buy matched the lower prices.

Diana Thang, manager of Grace Jewelers near San Francisco’s Union Square, said she and her staff are bargaining more than she ever has in two-plus decades in the business. But it’s not working wonders.

“They have a budget,” Thang said of most customers this season. “We give a low, low price and they still can’t accept it. They’re looking at more than $1,000 stuff, and they want to spend $200 or $300.”

With sales slow at virtually all retailers, experts say customers now have the upper hand. And even some who don’t explicitly ask for a discount or price-match are pressing for better deals.

For some retailers, desperation is setting in. The new year brings new inventory, so retailers typically try to clear out the old stock by year’s end. Stores are increasingly willing to do whatever they can to get rid of merchandise — even offering discounts on the spot.

Erica Pearson, a 31-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., resident, was debating which pair of Camper shoes to buy at a Saga Shoes store in Manhattan when a salesman offered her a deal if she bought both.

“The manager asked me what I wanted to pay for both of them,” Pearson said. She wound up getting about $40 off the total and paying no sales tax.

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