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pricetagLast year my husband and I attended a re-commitment ceremony for friends of ours. Since we’d never had a formal ceremony of our own, we started talking about hosting a similar event. Like most brides, my first thoughts were about what dress I would wear—I favored a simple, off-white, mermaid silhouette. So last week we visited our local bridal store. As soon as we entered, I fell for a luxuriously beaded, ivory ball gown with a fully-flared skirt and court-length train (nothing like the dress I’d imagined). Seeing that dress caused every little-girl princess fantasy I’d suppressed over the years to come rushing back. I couldn’t wait to try it on.

While I was mooning over the dress, the salesperson arrived. When I asked her the price she told me it was $1400. She then asked me, “What’s your budget?” “I’d like to keep it under two,” was my reply. She then chose two dresses off the rack and guided me to the fitting room. The first dress I tried on was the simpler style I had originally envisioned, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn it cost only $98. After trying on the second dress, I reminded her I still wanted to try on the $1400 ball gown. “But that’s out of your price range,” she responded. “No it’s not,” I replied, “I said I wanted to keep it under two.” “Oh,” she said, “You meant two thousand? I thought you meant two hundred!”

And there it was – the peril of the price question. Even though this salesperson asked about price, the way in which she posed the question led to a misunderstanding. Worse than this, sales associates may sometimes avoid asking the price question altogether for fear of offending customers. Here are some avoidance techniques they use:

The assumption method: One bad play is to try to assume you know how much the customer can afford. This method can quickly backfire (think Oprah Winfrey shopping for that Hermès bag).

The bottom-up/top-down method: This entails offering customers an item either at the very top or the very bottom of the price range and then attempting to gauge their reaction. However, offering up a lower priced item may imply you believe the customer can’t afford anything pricier. (Come to think of it, I was a little taken aback when the first dress my sales associate selected for me was off the $98 clearance rack). Conversely, putting forward an ultra-expensive item may cause your customer to smile, nod, and say “It’s beautiful, but I’ll have to think about it” as she quickly eyes the exit.

The shotgun method: This approach involves showing the customer a wide range of items to see what clicks. Unfortunately, the more choices you present to your customers, the less likely they will purchase. You may remember the famous jam experiment. Customers were offered taste tests in groups of either 6 or 24 different jams. Thirty percent of those who had sampled the smaller assortment bought the jam, while only 3 percent of those confronted with the two dozen jams purchased a jar. When offered too many choices, customers become overwhelmed. And because so many options are presented, this approach wastes both the sales associate’s and the customer’s time.

Sales associates may sometimes avoid asking the price question altogether for fear of offending customers.

The issue, then, is not whether to ask the price question, but how to ask it. Asking about price gracefully can be challenging, particularly in a luxury sales scenario. Simply inquiring, “What’s your budget?” can seem too direct and can even lead to confusion as we saw in the bridal store example. The goal of the question should be to establish a price range in which you can offer an appropriate selection for your customer.

A good way to begin is to ask, “What price range do you have in mind?” The point of this question is for the customer to suggest a “no more than” and “no less than” range. If she only states the top end of her buying range, you can then ask what number she would prefer not to go below.

If the customer is reluctant to answer or seems unsure, you can try this approach: “We have beautiful items at a variety of price points ranging from $50 to $10,000. Where would you like to start today?” Adding the qualifier “today,” or “with this particular gift,” removes any potential judgment. (It’s possible I would spend $10,000 on a gift, but not on this particular gift.)

In all cases, it can be helpful to cushion the price question by letting customers know you’re asking in order to help them find the perfect selection and to be considerate of their time. Knowing how to position the price question elegantly means you’ll never avoid it again.