Why are the British so reluctant to haggle when they are out shopping? Regular bargainers get thousands of pounds off goods and services, but most of us feel far too embarrassed to ask for a discount.
If you're one of the mortified majority, a new website may be able to help. Haggle4me.co.uk claims that it will get you discounts on almost anything. It is aimed at people who don't have the nerve to haggle for themselves, but who would still like to save money.
Users post details on the site of the item they want to buy, with the cheapest price they have been able to find. Haggle4me's army of hagglers then compete to beat your quote. The haggler who gets you the biggest saving gets to split the money equally with you. So you pay less and the haggler makes a few quid, too.
Does it work in practice? To find out, we posted three requests on the site and set the hagglers to work. Save & Spend also dispatched its most shameless reporter to find out what savings she could secure without the experts' help (see below).
The first challenge was to get a cheap deal on an iPod - naturally, we wanted Apple's latest model, with a 60Gb memory and a colour screen. In the Apple Shop in central London, this model would set us back £299 - so, how much could Haggle4me save us? The site passed this test with flying colours. Within minutes, it had negotiated us a £30 discount - 10 per cent off the £299 for the right model.
Next up was a plasma television - Panasonic's top-of-the-range 42in-screen one. John Lewis's website quoted £1,949, but to test out Haggle4me properly, we did a bit more research and found the TV for £1,754.99 on Pricerunner, the net-based shopping service.
Again, the site was up to the challenge - it found the model we wanted for £1,625.12, a discount of just over 7 per cent.
Finally, could Haggle4me save us money on a week's skiing holiday for two? Chalet Antoinette in Chamonix looked nice, and £628 per person from Ifyouski.com seemed a snip, given that the flights were for 8 April, in the middle of the school holidays.
This time, however, we stumped the site. It couldn't get us a discount on that deal, but made a couple of suggestions: "If you travelled a week earlier, you could get the same holiday for £569 per person, a saving of £118." And: "If you stayed at the Best Western Le Morgane Hotel in Chamonix, a room on the same dates would cost a total of £560. You can book your flights direct with easyJet and hire a car for £360. Making a grand total of £920, a 26 per cent saving."
Steve Dixon, founder of Haggle4me, says that the site's hagglers broadly fall into two categories: "People who spend time shopping around on the net to find things cheaply," he says. "And people who phone suppliers and try to beat them down on the price."
Expert hagglers try all sorts of tricks. You can try pleading limited resources, for example, or asking for a discount on a display model, or an item that doesn't look perfect. "What's your best price?" is a good starting point, but you must be prepared to persevere.
Playing shops off against each other is a strong tactic. High-street stores now routinely offer price-matching promises, though many don't shout about it. Asking a shop to beat its rivals' prices makes a lot of sense.
If a shop won't budge, think laterally, like the Haggle4me team. Can you get something extra thrown in with what you wanted to buy? Is there a discount for cash, or payments made in another way? And always make sure you're dealing with a manager or supervisor - someone who has the power to offer a discount.
Deborah Linton: 'He agreed to £290 and a hug for an iPod'
My first stop was the Apple Store on London's Regent Street. "Hi. Oh, I really do hope you can help..." Very sickly, very sweet. "I ordered an iPod for my brother's 21st. Is it 60gb? Yes, that's the one. It hasn't arrived and they've cancelled my order so I need to get hold of one as quickly and cheaply as possible."
With a shop full of people ready to spend, a lone cheapskate acting the damsel in distress was met with considerable disdain. "It's £299," said the salesman. "And you can't do it any cheaper?" I asked. Ten minutes of banter with the manager ascertained that, no, they couldn't do it any cheaper, wouldn't do it any cheaper. I did discover that a student card could secure me an 8 per cent discount, and that I could buy a " refreshed" (second-hand) iPod at a 10 per cent reduction, but that just seemed cheap.
Next I tried John Lewis for a plasma-screen TV. "I've broken my boyfriend's telly. I need a new one today and can't pay over the £1,720 he got his for." I chose a cheeky chappy - always a good move.
John Lewis champions price matching, and throws in a five-year guarantee, so there was no budging. But the nice man did point me towards Dixons, where he knew the television was cheaper, and promised he would match the price if I came back with details.
Determined to do better, I went to Tottenham Court Road. If my haggling was going to work anywhere, it was here. The iPod was tough - Apple is strict with profit margins, but Hussein in Arena Electronics agreed to £290 and a hug. He didn't get the hug, but offered £1,675 for the TV.
Next door, in Musical Vision, I did even better. Amin insisted "we must look after the lady" and agreed I could have the TV for just £1,650.
And the skiing holiday? Ifyouski.com contacted the chalet operator and politely told me discounts were off-piste.