NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Retailers and service providers today are increasingly willing – and even expecting – customers to negotiate prices on products, and experts say that even includes your local hair salon, dry cleaning establishment and favorite restaurant.

There has been some recent growth in retail sales in the U.S., but not nearly enough for shops, restaurants and other service providers to take any chances on losing customers. According to the Commerce Department, retail sales remained virtually unchanged in August 2011. Even when you exclude auto sales for the month, retail sales were only up 0.1% in August – hardly enough for economists, or consumers for that matter, to put on their rose-colored glasses.

Along with employment numbers and housing sales, retail sales are one of the key metrics for measuring consumer sentiment. When retail sales are down or flat, as they are now, consumers tend to snap their pocketbooks and wallets shut. So it’s up to retailers to get creative to get consumers back to the checkout counters.

One way that retailers are doing just that is to wink, nod, and otherwise let consumers know that they are willing to negotiate price to get their business.

Negotiating prices has long been the bane of retailers in our country, and often used mostly by fruit and vegetable stand purveyors or flea market vendors. But now all kinds of stores and shops are getting into the act, according to Charles Lankau, a business professor and expert in negotiation at Wake Forest University.

Lankau says that retailers are simply responding to reality on the ground – that consumers hold the cards right now and can get as assertive as they want to get the price they want.

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“As a consumer in today’s economy, people need to ask themselves, ‘Am I about to spend some money?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ negotiating is almost always appropriate,” he says. “Price, terms, perks or extras — most of the time they are there if you just ask.”

So how should consumers go about it?  Lankau offers the following tips:

  • Always negotiate. Bargaining is one of many valuable budget-stretching tools available. Use it.
  • Visualize a bargain. Think of how good it will feel if you get something for your efforts. Even if you are successful, it’s a win-win situation. In most cases, the seller will still be making a profit.
  • It’s OK to personalize the sale. Choose your words carefully to reach the emotional side of the person you are dealing with. For example: “I’m just not sure I can afford this. Can you do any better?”
  • Practice being assertive about price. Just like in sales, keep trying and your technique will improve.
  • Keep score on your negotiating performance. Keep a notecard and jot down every time you purchase an item for less than the asking price. It adds up! Seeing your savings grow is a great motivator.

For far too long consumers have hobbled themselves in retail negotiations – mainly by not negotiating at all. But those days are over, and no goods or services are beyond the reach of a good discussion.

In fact, no purchase is too small for negotiating, Lankau says. “My mother never hesitated to point out a flaw, if there was one, in a blouse or sweater, and she almost always received at least a 10% discount.”

That seems to be the going rate – and in this lousy economy, the going rate is getting better all the time.

It doesn't matter if you're new to haggling or a veteran - if you follow MainStreet's guide on How to Negotiate Anything, you're likely to have some cash coming to you!