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Master the Modern Art of Haggling

This is the story of how Elena Smonina haggled her way to $4,000 in savings on a home landscaping project. It begins with an admission: "Gardening was never my thing," says Smonina, a tax manager who lives in Milford, Conn. So she created a challenge for herself: Use 3,000 square feet worth of patio pavers to transform part of her lawn into a geometric wonderland, with raised plant beds for greenery.

"My husband thought I was crazy," she says. In August she visited her local Lowe's store and found pavers at just 30 cents each, marked down from $1.50. But only ten were left, so she started calling other Lowe's stores in her area. "Your other store has them on clearance," she'd say. "Why don't you?" Sometimes Smonina would remind the floor manager that it was the end of the season and he'd have to sell them sooner or later. If the floor manager wouldn't deal, she'd ask to speak to the store manager. Some stores had 100 pavers and some had 1,000, and by reaching the right person and pushing the right buttons, she discovered that they were all ready to deal.

Smonina used three tried-and-true haggling techniques to perfection, which we'll discuss in a bit. But the deck was already stacked in her favor because Lowe's had had two lousy years before she began her bargaining spree, and may just barely eclipse its prerecession sales this year. You have the same edge: The shaky economy and anemic retail spending have opened the haggling floodgates. And hard-pressed consumers smell blood.

A poll in 2009 by Consumer Reports underscores the trend. It found that more than 66% of Americans had tried negotiating during a six-month period last year, and that most consumers who tried won discounts. But we're still far from a haggling society. The same poll found that only 28% of Americans say they haggle either always or often.

Smonina had the advantage of having grown up in a haggle-intensive culture -- in the former Soviet Union -- where she traveled to market with her grandmother and listened to her bargain for fruits and vegetables. But for many Americans, haggling is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable exercise. Haggling experts say the trick is to ease yourself into bargaining with easy targets and simple techniques.

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