COLUMN: August 2, 2018

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Haggling, as seen in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian

I HATE haggling. The last time I had to haggle was nine years ago, when I was doing a car boot sale, and a customer was trying to get me below a quid for an unopened set of four Ben 10 figures.

I, you will be delighted to know, refused to budge, and the customer moved on, to be replaced by somebody happy to pay £1 for something worth at least 12 times that amount. Retail’s loss is also journalism’s loss.

I am not, it turns out, a natural haggler, haggling being alien both to me and the British psyche. I am comfortable with the system we have in which items are labelled with a price, and if you hand over the amount of money on the label you walk away with the item, and it doesn’t become an anecdote.

But haggling is a complicated poker game, with many opportunities to insult your opponent and also be ripped off by him. It is, in short, extremely stressful.

We don’t go into newsagents’ shops and try to knock down the price of a Twix, so why do we British reserve this uniquely stressful way of conducting transactions for the already stress-filled business of buying houses and cars?

I recently decided to buy a car. My friends were aghast. “But, Gary,” they said. “You can’t buy a car. Your personal brand is that you catch buses everywhere. In fact, your defining personality trait is ‘bus passenger’. Without buses, you are just a man with glasses.”

“Yes,” I said, “but all bad things must come to an end.” The final straw had been when I was forced to watch a sweaty man eat a sweatier cheese sandwich on the sweatiest bus. You can’t blame me. I’ve put up with a lot.

And it was not as if I had never driven. One of the things you need to take part in a car boot sale is a car.

But I am not one of those men who can lift up a car bonnet, peer inside, and say, “The big end’s gone”, with any sort of conviction. I am one of those men who hovers by the bonnet and says to the other man, “Well, I’ve definitely filled the windscreen wiper reservoir recently, so it can’t be that.”

When a man like me walks into a used car dealership, it is like dropping a steak into a tank of sharks. So I was at an advantage when I saw the exact car I wanted online at roughly my budget. All I had to do was walk into the dealership and pretend to be somebody who takes no nonsense from car salesmen.

“I’m interested in this,” I said, pointing to the car of my dreams. “It seems quite cheap for the model. What exactly is wrong with it?” Ha, I thought, come back from that, carmonger.

He did. He explained that this was a small operation with low overheads. But that was fine. I had laid down a marker.

We took the car out for a spin, the dealer in the passenger seat. I took a corner a little ineptly – I was rusty, dammit – and the dealer audibly inhaled.

“I feel like I’m on my test,” I said.

“Everybody says that,” said the dealer. Good, I thought, my mission to appear like a normal, no-nonsense person is succeeding.

We returned to the dealership. I informed the dealer that he would be parking the motor, giving him the impression that I was a very busy person rather than somebody terrified he’d scratch something while executing an otherwise perfect 44-point turn.

We retired to the office. It was time for the dance to begin. I call it a dance, but it was very stressful, with many opportunities for things to go wrong, leaving me flat on my face. Come to think of it, it was exactly like a dance.

“I’m very interested in this vehicle, but it is slightly above my budget,” I said. This was both a bargaining position and 100% true. “Would you accept [£200 less than the asking price]?”

He looked at me. “The first thing you said to me is that the car was cheap for the model. It’s already as low as I can go.”

I had sabotaged myself, as usual. Damn him, I thought, for using my own words against me. I considered using the Trump defence of denying I’d said what we both knew I’d said, and even if I had said it, I meant the opposite.

But I aim to be honourable, even if I often miss. I made a half-hearted attempt at £100 less, and the dealer batted it away, as if I were making a sub-£1 offer for a set of Ben 10 figures.

And so I left agreeing to pay the price on the ticket, and disappointed with myself that I had done so.

This is why I hate haggling.

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