I’m standing in Carmelli bakery in Golders Green smiling sweetly at the good-looking man behind the counter, trying to persuade him to give me some money off the price of two medium challahs.
“You mean, you don’t do anything like buy one, get one half-price. Or anything else?” I ask hopefully, knowing that buying two is actually what is expected.
“No,” he says.
“Oh, go on,” I say, uncomfortably.
“I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“What about if I get one big one for less?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t give you a discount.”
I think on my feet, trying to find a reason why I might deserve money off.
“Even on a Wednesday? I mean, this won’t keep fresh till Friday night.”
“You could put it in the freezer and warm it up.”
“I guess so. OK, I’ll get one big one please.”
I part with £2.60 and take home a challah that will be stale come Friday night.
This is the first of many failed bargaining attempts during my personal challenge: to buy kosher products for less than the price at which they are advertised. We are constantly being told that vendors are practically giving away their goods right now. “With the recession biting hard, shoppers can name their price,” proclaims one newspaper. “Hard-hit stores happy to haggle on price!” insists another. But my experience isn’t quite matching up. I had thought the haimishe village of Golders Green would welcome a keen bargainer. Chutzpah is part of our heritage. Abraham haggled over the cost of the burial place for his wife Sarah. Yiddish was practically invented for use in bartering situations. But my botched bargain-hunting at some of north-west London’s finest kosher establishments suggests that the tradition has got lost over the centuries.
At the Kosher Delicatessen I pick up a large chicken and begin to discuss with the shopkeeper how many people it would feed. I wait for all the other customers to leave the shop — not that I’m embarrassed or anything, I just don’t want them suffer jealousy when I secure a huge discount — before whispering: “Is there any way you could do it for less?”
“What?” asks the cashier, thinking she hasn’t heard me right. I repeat the question, a little more loudly now.
“Why?” she responds, clearly affronted.
“Well, you know, this is quite a big chicken and so maybe you could give it to me at a discount,” I venture timidly. I feel a bit silly — I can’t think of one good reason why they would give me money off. But I continue regardless.
“All our chickens are at wholesale prices, they’re
really good value,” says the cashier.
“Oh right. I was just thinking since times are tough, you might be able to…” I’m not even convincing myself, let alone the impatient salesperson.
“If you come on a Monday, the chickens are cheaper,” she says.
“OK, thanks,” I say, adding apologetically: “I bet nobody else asks for discounts.”
“Not really. If they do, we never give them. It’s a set price.”
My hope of regaining some shred of dignity is lost. By this point, I can’t very well not buy the damn bird. I walk out the shop carrying their biggest and most expensive chicken and £8.75 out of pocket.
I might be Jewish but I’m also English and this country’s etiquette deems it vulgar to challenge an honest businessman or to appear short of money. We Brits might feel comfortable bartering away in the Arabic souk in Jerusalem, but not in the suburban environs of north London where, heaven forbid, someone we know might see us. Each time I enter one of these shops I feel an acute sense of embarrassment and nervousness before I launch into what I laughably call my “patter”. Clearly, I need some instruction from an expert in the ways of getting stuff for less.
I turn to the JC’s financial columnist, the Money Mensch, Martin Lewis. He suggests bargaining with independent retailers, who have more leeway. He also says: “Try not to haggle when a shop is crammed with other customers. The last thing salespeople are interested in is reducing their margins when they can see lots of people willing to buy.”
With this in mind, I enter Jerusalem The Golden, the destination for all things Judaicia. It’s empty and the shopkeeper is reading a book behind the counter.
“Hi there. Could I see your mezuzahs?” I ask him, implying by my tone of voice that I am his new best friend.
“Yes, over there,” he replies without looking up.
Lewis says: “If you’re polite, charming and treat the whole process with humour, you’ll get further.” This is going to be difficult.
“Could you tell me how much they are?” I ask, innocently. He comes out from behind the counter.
“They’re all £6 apart from these ones, which are £12,” he says, pointing to the display.
“And how much are the scrolls?” I ask.
“I really like this one [for £12]. Is there any way you could do it for less?”
“What about if I buy the scroll too?” He shakes his head.
“It’s just our one got broken when we had the builders in,” I say, appealing to his good nature.
“You’re the second customer this week who that happened to,” he says. “You know, it’s OK to take down a mezuzah while you are not living there.”
At least we’re now having a semblance of conversation. “I know. I wish I had done,” I continue. “So, there’s no way you can give me some money off, if I buy the scroll too?”
At this point my mobile phone rings. I tell him I’ll take the call, thinking he will feel he might lose the sale and agree to a discount. Alas, he lets me go and doesn’t appear to feel much sense of loss.
Lewis suggests: “Don’t be afraid to walk away if they won’t give you want to want — you can always try elsewhere.” At least I get that bit right. I didn’t much care for the mezuzah anyway.
What I actually want is a top-of-the -range hairdryer so I head for Sally’s, a haven of haircare products. “Hi there, I’d like to buy this BaByliss hairdryer. I use one at the gym and they’re really good,” I tell the shop assistant. Already I’m off to a bad start by revealing that I really want what she’s selling. Lewis says you’re not supposed to disclose how much you like something.
After that my bargaining trajectory goes much the same way as the economy — in a downward spiral. I brazenly ask for the discount reserved for professional hairdressers even though I admit I’m not one. Doesn’t work. I ask if I could get £5 off seeing as the hairdryer I want is expensive. Doesn’t work. Not to feel completely demoralised, I see if I can at least get something else thrown in. After all, Lewis advises: “Often, customer service assistants will say they’re not allowed to give discounts. If you’re new to haggling, an easy startpoint is to ask them to throw something in on top.” So I ask if she could give me a tin of hair mousse for free if I buy the dryer. Doesn’t work.
The assistant shows me cheaper models but I convince myself I have to buy the BaByliss at £44.35. Talk about reverse haggling.
I decide to try another area, where they know how to play the game better — Leather Lane market in central London. I find a Cockney chap selling cheap velour tracksuits for £10 each. The Money Mensch suggests that items at sale prices are worth haggling over since the vendor is trying to shift them.
I want the pink one but he doesn’t have my size.
“Would you do it for £8 since you don’t have my size?” I ask.
“Sorry love. You can’t get better than £10,” he replies.
I try one on and spend time deciding whether to get it in a different colour or not. I verbalise my doubts about the size and the colour, thinking this will encourage him to give a discount.
Instead, all he says is: “Women, eh! They can never make up their minds.”
A show of determination is needed. I tell him he must take at least a pound off or I’m walking. He doesn’t, so I walk.
I come back five minutes later and buy a tracksuit at the advertised price. I can’t even haggle in a market.
Just when I think my bargaining powers are about as effective as a Gordon Brown bank bail out, I go into posh Farringdon deli Flâneur, to buy cheese. I pick out a selection for £5.70. Taking out a crisp note, I ask the nice man behind the counter if he can give me the cheese for £5. Better than that, he knocks off an extra 20p.