Out There: ‘For you, half price’

There is something permanent, definite, etched-in-stone about a price tag. What the price tag says was what the price was. Amazing concept.

Negotiation Cartoon 390 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
Negotiation Cartoon 390
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
The Wife, after spending a few weeks extensively researching refrigerators to replace our 25- year-old Amcor XL, returned from the appliance store recently wearing a wide smile.
“Wonderful,” I thought, believing that smile was a sign we had sealed the deal; that this particular consumer ordeal was over; that the weeks of Internet research and shlepping back and forth to various appliance stores had yielded a refrigerator of which we could be proud.
And, indeed, The Wife had made the purchase. But that was not the source of her joy. No, the smile was not because we were about to replace our noisy icebox with a new one with 21st-century features. Rather, the Wife was smiling because she had succeeded in getting the manager to knock a couple hundred shekels off the price.
“Wow,” I thought, “have we become acculturated, or what?” Entering a large, established appliance store and bargaining with the manager over the price of a refrigerator is – for both The Wife and me – a brave new world.
Neither of us grew up – her in Chicago, me in Denver – bargaining for our goods. We never walked into Sears or Target with our folks who would then proceed to talk the salesman down in price. The price listed was the price paid.
If jeans cost $12.99, we paid $12.99. If we didn’t have $12.99, we didn’t buy the jeans. Same with records, and baseball gloves, and televisions, and refrigerators, and anything else that had a price tag.
There was something permanent, definite, etched-in-stone about a price tag. What the price tag said was what the price was. Amazing concept.
Until we moved here. Then, all of a sudden, price tags meant a lot less – if there even was a price tag.
Israel has traveled light-years in many different spheres since I moved here 30 years ago, not least in putting prices on items. It used to be that prices were not listed on anything: not on freezers, not on refrigerators, not on the goods in the supermarkets that fill the refrigerators and freezers. And what that did was open the door to a perpetual bidding war.
If no price is listed, then you have to ask the salesman. But once you ask, and he answers, you feel free to argue – or at least some feel free to argue.
I NEVER felt free to argue. There were a few reasons for this.
First, in my early years here – those bureaucratic-laden years trying to set everything up – there was just too much to argue about: with the cab drivers, with the Bezek people, with Absorption Ministry folks, with the Interior Ministry, with movers carping that climbing a few steps to the apartment was not factored into the delivery price.
Everything, it seemed, was an argument, a fight. So when I went to buy some socks, I just wanted a tension-free transaction.
Secondly, I thought if the salespeople heard my heavy American accent, they would smell an easy mark and just take me to the cleaners.
Finally, I never felt free to argue with the salesman because I did not really know how to do it; bargaining was simply not in my genes.
Instead I would ask the price, the salesman would answer, and I’d smile and say “ok,” thinking the price he quoted was final – like at Sears – and there was no room for movement. At the same time, he must have been thinking, “Wow, why can’t all my customers be like this guy?” And I don’t blame him – easy customers in this land are a blessing.
SOON AFTER moving here, as I was writing a college thesis on Mahaneh Yehuda, the colorful outdoor market in Jerusalem, I decided that as part of the research I needed to work there for a spell.
What I wanted was to work as a hawker in one of the fruit or vegetable stalls, to rub shoulders with the locals, to soak up the atmosphere and be better able to write my piece.
But standing there pretzel-limbed in a market where many of the merchants had arms as thick as bread loaves, looking and sounding like the American I was, and bespectacled in alleyways where nary a salesman wore glasses, it wasn’t easy finding someone to take me in.
“What are we, a kibbutz?” one stall owner barked, when I told him I wanted to volunteer for a week.
Another asked if I was really working undercover for the tax authorities. A third – who sold “santarosa” plums – was willing to take me under his wing, but cautioned me not to lower the prices when the customers haggled.
“Why would they haggle?” I asked. “The price per kilo is written on the sign.”
He gave a knowing chuckle. And he was right. Customer after customer haggled, trying to get the price per kilo down, trying to get me to throw in a few extra plums, trying every which way not to pay the price posted for the plums.
THIS URGE, this need, this impulse to bargain says something about our collective psyche. It’s axiomatic to say we live here in fear of being a sucker, a frier.
Everyone bargains, so if you don’t, you feel like you are being played.
And there is nothing worse, nothing more of an insult to one’s manhood, than that feeling of being played.
That, by the way, is the emotion at work that renders standing in line here so unsettling. Line-standing is not really that bad, so long as everyone does it. But what makes it so galling, so unnerving here, is that while you are waiting patiently, others are cutting in. You can’t relax because you constantly need to be poised to pounce in case someone tries to move in ahead of you.
And the second element compelling us to bargain is honor. In this country it’s almost an affront to one’s honor to pay the list price; as if the list price is for the regular folk, not for us. Israelis love the feeling of not only paying less, but of telling their friends they paid less. It’s a badge of honor, a status thing.
In America you gain status by purchasing a million-dollar home. Here you gain status by purchasing a million-dollar home for $750,000. If you actually pay a million dollars for a million-dollar home, you really haven’t done much.
Which explains The Wife’s smile, and my unadulterated joy, at paying less than the list price for the refrigerator.
Finally, we had arrived.