The art of the negotiation: The shootout at the O.K. Corral

I look him over coldly, head to toe. I pay close attention to the little beads of sweat forming on his brow and the twitch of his hands. He does the same to me. We’re both trying to read each other, to get a sense of the other guy.

We’re two cold-hearted gunslingers from the American Old West. In another time, we would have been in Dodge City, Kansas, or Tombstone, Arizona, facing off in a real life duel. Instead, we’re two men facing off in, well, a mattress store in suburbia.


He’s a salesman, looking to add to his weekly sales total and push up his commission. I’m a customer looking to make the best possible deal. If we walked outside right now guns drawn, we’d probably get run over on this hot 90-degree day by a pimply-faced teenager fighting for a parking spot in front of the new frozen yogurt stand or by a soccer mom or dad in a huge tank-like SUV going to the LA Fitness gym.

Focus on the mission


I put that all out of my mind. I need to focus on what’s important. My wife and I are buying a new mattress for our bedroom. Our existing bed has had it. The mattress sags and slumps where it should stand firm. We wake up feeling tired and exhausted. The mattress has served us well, even serving as a makeshift trampoline over the years for my kids when we weren’t looking, but it has seen better days.

I know a new king-sized mattress is going to cost me, but I’m looking for a fair price and I  have little patience for the sales spin that I know awaits me. Before we walked into the store, my wife and I reviewed our plan. It’s really pretty simple, straight out of Negotiation & Conflict Management 101:

  • Research, research, research. We’ve researched all the different types of mattresses and know what we’re looking for and what we’re willing to pay.
  • Listen and ask questions. Give nothing away without getting something in return.
  • Think in business terms. Take nothing personal.
  • Be prepared to walk away at any point.
  • Aim for the sky.

Who’s going to blink first?


I’m ready for the firestorm to start. In real life, the old west duels usually started, not in the middle of the street as Hollywood would have us believe, but over a poker table, vacant lot, or back alley. And in this case, we face off, with him at one end of a mattress, my wife and I at the other end.

The salesman kicks things off by throwing a silly joke our way about one of his previous customers wanting to adjust the height of her bed so that her dog could be more comfortable. My wife laughs. I instantly give her a dirty look that says: “Knock it off.” We specifically talked about this driving to the store.  We even practiced: no laughing, no letting our guard down, no personal stuff, all business. I shake my head and return giving the salesman a glare.

weapon-1506218_640I take solace that he’s picked up on none of the exchange. He’s knee-deep in a mini-tutorial, straight out Mattress Management 101. If we’d let him, he’d lecture forever on the benefits of fibers, coils, and foam. And he’s quick to add, of course, that his mattresses are the best, and all others pale by comparison.

He asks with a hopeful tone if my wife and I want to finance the mattress. He’s looking for a big pay day. I bat away his suggestion with my hand, like a kid batting away a mosquito. He gets my intent right away. There’s no jacking up the price. We’re here to buy today at the right price.

He starts his dissertation again, but we cut him off at the pass. We point to two beds that we’re looking at and ask a few pointed questions on firmness, parts, and warranty.

The moment of truth


We’re starting to make progress, but he’s sticking on us like bees on honey until I ask if we can have a few seconds to talk alone. He looks up like I’ve just offended him, but gingerly steps away. My wife and I go back and forth, but finally decide on our pick of the two mattresses.

We wave Billy the Kid, with his toupee and Dockers slacks back and tell him which mattress we’re considering. He gives us a discount on the box spring, mattress, and frame and offers to cut the delivery in half. I run the figures through my head. I look at my wife, she looks back.

This is the moment of truth.

Making the most of the opportunity


We have a decision: ask for him to cut the price of the bed more; ask for a bigger discount on delivery; or take what he’s offered. I give myself a quick, imaginary pep talk. This is the time to ask for what we want. Be ready to walk if you have to. I think to myself: “I’ll show him.”

I look over at my wife. I’m counting on seeing the same spark, the same fight. Instead, I see instantly that she’s caved. She’s all smiles, imaging how good a full night of sleep is going to feel. I can tell too that she’s thinking about how she won’t have to hear my loud, obnoxious snoring anymore since the new mattress will mean that I’ll stay in my side of the bed, instead of being practically thrown on top of her.

Tick, tick, tick


The clock is ticking. I can’t put it off any longer. What’s our decision? I curse to myself and know that I’ve lost. “Oh what the hell,” I say to the guy. “Throw in two of those $80 sub-zero pillows, the ones that have the cooling fibers and are cool to the touch, and we have a deal.”

He steps back like I’m trying to fleece him blind, but relents. I know instantly that I should have asked for more, but oh well, we have a deal.

A happy story, until next time


In the grand scheme of things, we did a good job. We got a new, decently priced mattress that meets our needs. I leave the store happy, but promise myself to work even more on my negotiations skills. Fortunately, we won’t have to negotiate for a new mattress for quite some time.

I’m still thinking about “next time” when I get in our car to head home. I look at the dashboard and it hits me: next up in the negotiating war, a new car.

I shake my head and say a prayer for the car to last a long, long time.



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