NEW YORK - If you're looking for an extra bargain before the holidays, you may only have to ask.
With holiday sales shaping up to be the lowest in years, possibly the worst since the industry began annual comparisons in 1969, retailers say they are taking consumers' demands for good deals seriously.
Some are extending return policies, while others are matching competitors' prices. Many are offering on-the-spot discounts and even letting customers haggle prices down in a desperate bid to make the cash register ring.
"You'd have to be a moron not to ask for a discount," said Stephen Hoch, a retailing expert at the Wharton School in Philadelphia.
More and more consumers are doing just that, treating a trip to the mall like a visit to the used-car lot.
Allen Chen, a part-time cashier at a J. Crew clothing store in White Plains, N.Y., said shoppers with two-month-old receipts were asking for partial refunds on items now on sale there. Normally, the store's policy is to refund the difference between an item's purchase price and a later sale price only if the product goes on sale within seven days of the purchase.
"When I tell them it is past the seven-day policy, they tell me that they will just return it and rebuy it" at the sale price, he said.
Shoppers are also being far more savvy about asking retailers to match a competitor's lower price.
While shopping for Blu-ray discs at a Los Angeles Best Buy, Luis Levy used his cell phone to check the price at nearby competitors. Each disc was $10 cheaper at Circuit City or Wal-Mart. Best Buy matched the lower prices.
Diana Thang, manager of Grace Jewelers near San Francisco's Union Square, said she and her staff were bargaining more than she ever had in two-plus decades in the business. But it was not working wonders.
"They have a budget," Thang said of most customers this season. "We give a low, low price, and they still can't accept it."
With sales slow at virtually all retailers, experts say customers now have the upper hand. And even some shoppers who do not explicitly ask for a discount or price-match are pressing for better deals.
For some retailers, desperation is setting in. The new year brings new inventory, so retailers are increasingly willing to do whatever they can to move merchandise.
Erica Pearson, a 31-year-old resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., was debating which pair of Camper shoes to buy at a Saga Shoes store in Manhattan recently when a salesman offered her a deal if she bought both.
"The manager asked me what I wanted to pay for both of them," Pearson said. She wound up getting about $40 off the total and paying no sales tax.
Other retailers are giving consumers more wiggle room for returns instead of haggling over prices.
Even Circuit City Stores Inc., which has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, has extended its holiday return deadline to Jan. 31, spokesman Jim Babb said. The chain previously had required items such as cameras and computers to be returned by Jan. 8 and others by Jan. 25.