I've been asked this question so many times in the last 26 years as an antiques dealer. It's a question not used in any other retail venue - not in auto sales, not at the grocery, certainly not at Walmart. Only in an antiques shop or at an antiques show does one hear the question, "What's your best price?" (Or, sometimes from a particularly needy customer, "What's your very, very, VERY best price?")
For experienced antiques dealers, it's a tip-off that this customer:
a) is a buyer new to the world of antiques, or
b) isn't comfortable with price negotiation, or
c) has been watching far too many antiques-related shows on tv.
Often, it's all the above.
If one is comfortable with price negotiations on antiques, one is more inclined to know what they're willing to pay, and then suggest a price in that range. Successful antiques buyers know they'll have a higher ratio of buying probability when they make a sincere offer at a true price they are willing to pay. By making a specific offer, they are telling the dealer that they are serious, and that they aren't on a fishing expedition.
Think about this: if you are a dealer, and someone asks you "What's your best price?", wouldn't you be tempted to be a bit of a smartass and answer, "Twice what's on the tag!", just because that would be your best price as a dealer, right? Of course, from a buyer's view, that's exactly opposite of what you - the buyer - had in mind. A buyer wants a cheaper price, which is okay. But by asking "What's your best price?", the customer has put the potential negotiations in jeopardy.
At the last show I did just a couple of weeks ago, a woman asked me this question. It was early in the day, and I wasn't at smartass level yet (but by 5 pm, depending on how long a day it feels like, forgive me but I sometimes can't stop myself). In response, I asked her what price would make her comfortable. (I don't toy with my customers - I respect them. EACH of my antiques are priced clearly, often with descriptive information, so every customer can decide for themselves if it's a price in their range.)
This customer looked at me blankly, and blurted out, "I don't know!!!"
Even though I had opened the door by asking her what she'd like to pay - giving her plenty of opportunity to negotiate a price in her comfort zone - she was terrified at the thought of telling me what price would make her happy. After all, I might somehow take advantage of her by accepting the price that would make her happy . . . ??!!???
So, gently, I started with Antiques Buying 101. I began by sharing with her the background on the piece of furniture she was considering, telling her it's history, age, materials, construction, practical use ideas, and other specifics to that piece. Then, I explained to her that since she knew from the tag how much I wanted, the ball was now in her court. It was up to her to make me a fair offer, hopefully one I just couldn't refuse. We talked for about 45 minutes.
She was completely stalled. Finally, she admitted that she'd been watching a tv show which advised that the way to get cheaper prices on antiques was to ask this infamous question. Explaining that this question really hampers a successful sale, I again asked her if instead she had a price in mind which would make her happy. She wasn't able to formulate an answer, and walked away, muttering something about "thinking about it" and how she'd "be back".
Ten minutes later, another buyer asked about the very same piece of furniture. She and her husband carefully examined the piece front, back and upside down. I was happy to have enthused customers! They asked a few questions about it's construction and age. As I stepped back, they spoke quietly to each other for a few moments, and then approached me with a serious offer that was reasonable. I smiled, accepted their offer immediately, and helped them load it into their van. It was a negotiation that was simple and easy, with all parties happy. Hurray for fair and reasonable buyers, who know what they want and how to buy it!!!
There's an ending to this true story. About an hour later, the first customer returned, having screwed up her courage to attempt the purchase. When she saw the empty spot where "her" antique used to be, she was nearly in tears. She'd gone to lunch to contemplate her possible purchase, and had come back for it, only to discover someone else had bought "her" antique. She was beside herself, unhappy that she hadn't bought it in the first place. Since it was an unusual piece, it wasn't something she was going to find again anytime soon. She soon left the show, disappointed and sad. It was a difficult lesson to learn.
I teach classes on antiques, including Antiques Buying 101. One of the first steps I teach is to carefully examine the item so that a buyer knows exactly what they are paying for.
The second step is to ask as many questions as they wish, because an informed buyer is a smart buyer. A dealer should be happy to answer those questions, and if they aren't, a buyer should take another hard look at their potential purchase before buying.
The third step - price negotiation - isn't difficult. In most cases, the dealer has indicated what price they want by writing it on the price tag. The quickest way to being a happy new owner of that antique is for the customer to offer a specific price he is willing to pay. No fishing around for "best price", no games, no "Let me think about it" stuff. Just "I-like-it-I-want-it-and-would-you-consider-$XXX-for-it" to the dealer (of course, with a pleasant voice and a smile), and most times a buyer will be going home with their new-found treasure. Most buyers can count on purchasing their antique at a reasonable and fair offer around 10% off the dealer's tagged price.
If you are contemplating a much larger discount, you can try it, but remember - insulting a dealer with a 50%-off offer will most likely end all potential for a successful purchase. It will also brand you as someone the dealer won't be willing to spend any energy or time on, since most dealers cannot take 50% off the price of their antiques and have other, more serious buyers to spend their time with.
Remember, antiques dealers are business people who need to make a profit. They certainly don't run shops or exhibit at shows just for the fun of it. Some shows cost a dealer $3000 in expenses before they sell their first antique at that show. Also, at the end of the tax year, the IRS needs to see proof that a dealer was operating as a business (i.e., more profit than expenses), otherwise the IRS relegates them to "hobby status" and can disallow all their business deductions, which is quite painful financially.
So, the point here is to find an antique which "speaks" to you ("please take me home and love me"), and offer a fair and reasonable price to the selling dealer. More than likely, you'll be a proud new owner, with the dealer gladly selling it to you for your price. If it's beyond your pocketbook, that's okay. We all have budgets. You might try thinking outside the box by being a bit creative - ask about a lay-a-away program, or whether the dealer accepts charge cards (thereby allowing you to pay for your treasure over time).
Keep in mind that a dealer pays a commission to the charge company, so you may end up paying the full price of the antique, with the dealer paying the charge company's commission. (Surpisingly, when my charge card company is done with all the little extras they hit me for - swipe fees, actual charge commission, statement fees, off-site fees, etc., - I end up paying about 8-10% commission!) I willingly accommodate my customers by accepting charge cards, knowing that it'll cost me money. It's just a business expense I accept as a professional dealer.
One last suggestion - try really hard not to use the phrase "I'll give you $xxx ...." for your intended purchase. It's an ego-trip phrase that often makes a dealer's blood boil. As a buyer, you can't GIVE the dealer anything for their antique; they already own it. You aren't doing that dealer any favors by GIVING them your lower price for that antique; since you are not the only customer on this planet, they already know they can sell it to someone else. Ouchy - now you've begun your negotiation with a very negative statement that is often offensive to a dealer. I know dealers who - upon hearing this phrase - are so dismayed at the buyer's arrogance that they abruptly end all discussion and walk away. That dealer knows there is another customer somewhere who will buy that antique, and now you've lost out on something that spoke to you!
Be a successful buyer - just offer a reasonable and fair price, and smile a lot. You can easily be a dealer's new best friend and go home with something old and wonderful!