"They do," Allan swears. "They absolutely do."
Next, Allan introduces me to Steve Brown, the owner of a furniture-and-interior-design studio in South Florida who's outfitted the model units of a bevy of high-rise condo buildings. He doesn't usually sell at retail, but he'll sell to Allan's clients at the trade discount usually offered to interior designers. "Steve knows when I call he won't make a fat profit, but these customers come back again and again," Allan says. "I'll call up and say, 'Here's the brand name; here's what the customer wants. Can you make a buck off it?' And he'll tell me right off the bat, yes or no."
"Somebody like Allan who comes to you all the time with business - we can afford to work a little shorter with him than we do with our regular clients," Brown says.
"And Brown is a high-end line," Allan puts in. "He's been open since the 1970s. All these big condos that go up in Florida, they have model everything, and Steve does them all."
"See, consumers today have a lot more power than they did years ago, because they have more choices," Brown says. "Allan's helping them take advantage of that power, and it's been working for him. It works for us, too, because it's another sale for us."
It is halfway through this conversation that I recognize Allan's gift. He's able to schmooze two people at the same time, even when those two people are on the opposite ends of a negotiating table. He schmoozes them both so well that they each walk away from the table grinning. He's not so much a negotiator but a mediator. A matchmaker, even. I wonder whether he's ever considered negotiating divorce settlements.
"I've been asked to, but I had to say no; you have to be a lawyerfor that," he says. "I'd love to do it, but I'd probably land injail."
Allan Starks wasn't always a jolly Negotiate4U ambassador, plyingthe auto dealerships and appliance showrooms and design studios ofsunny southern Florida. He began his professional life in Baltimore, where he took the reins of the family office-supply business, which was founded by his father, who started out by selling pencils on a street corner during the Depression.
Allan managed 65 employees and three locations, posting sales of $8 million a year. Business was good. He made a good living. He was content - but not really happy. "My happiest times were when I negotiated purchasing for the store," he says. "I'd tell our purchasing agents, 'Get your best price, and then let me call.' A hundred percent of the time I got a better price. They'd say, 'Of course you get a better price; you're the Stark in Stark Office Supply.' So I'd use a fake name and still do it. I wanted to show them they could do that."
Too bad he didn't realize at the time that he had a business in the making. He eventually sold Stark Office Supply, moved to Boca Raton, and tried a couple of other careers - selling life insurance and brokering mortgages - before it hit him: All the negotiating he'd done on behalf of friends and family over the years, he could now do for others for a fee. "Now I'm as happy as a lark," says Allan, who's 62 and has two grown daughters. "I wake up in the morning raring to go. I get a call from someone who wants me to make a deal, and I go crazy. I get on two telephones. I'm a maniac!"
About once a week, he speaks to civic organizations about negotiating. One story he usually tells goes like this: He went to a big-name electronics superstore (which shall, for the purposes of this story, remain nameless) to buy a 60-inch flat-screen TV. He'd checked Consumer Reports; he'd settled on the model he wanted. He asked the price.
"$2,595," the salesperson said.
"I can't afford it," Allan replied.
The salesperson offered him the TV for $2,495. Allan said no. The salesperson went to a nearby computer station, keyed in a few commands, and returned with a price of $2,395. Allan asked for the sales manager - who offered it for $2,195. Allan said he'd think about it.
Allan went to Sears. He told the salesperson there he'd found the model he wanted for $2,195.
"I can let you have it for $1,995," the Sears guy said.
"You're getting close," said Allan, "but it's still more than I wanted to spend."
"Okay, how about $1,795?" said the Sears guy.
(By this point in the story, Allan says, his audiences are looking at him skeptically. "But may God strike me dead!" he says. "It's true!")
Allan told the Sears guy, "Hmmm."
The salesperson said, "This weekend, we're taking 10 percent off everything in the store. If you buy it now, I'll write it up for Saturday, and it'll cost you $1,540. And I'll give you this DVD player for free."
Just because he could, Allan then took his sales invoice from Sears back to the superstore. The sales manager swore the price Allan got was below the superstore's cost.
The moral of this story is you can negotiate anything, Allan says. "People have no idea you can go into these stores and negotiate. I tell people they can do it themselves. But most people are afraid to do it."