Documentary and Reality TV is a mature business.
Negotiating leverage forever flows towards a shrinking cartel of network operators, platforms and, perhaps, super-duper-producers.
When we sit down at the negotiation table, we need all the help we can get.
Tom Porter, our great friend from Discovery’s golden days, told us about Gary Greene, a business consultant who teaches negotiation skills. Tom said that Pawn Stars is one of Gary’s favorite teaching tools
So why not look for inspiration from one of the 1st families in our Non-scripted tribe?
We contacted Gary, and he kindly offered to share his Takeaways on the negotiating strategies practiced by the Harrison family at their Vegas pawnshop.
First, here’s a cutdown of Leftfield Pictures’ sizzle tape for History Channel:
(And BTW: You can find out the production budget for Pawn Stars and many other U.S. cable hits and misses. It’s all in our ‘Sweet Spots’ study.)
Ten Negotiation Secrets of the Pawn Stars
By Gary Greene, Consultant
I encourage all my clients to watch Pawn Stars on the History Channel, where every week Rick Harrison, his son, Corey, his dad (the ‘Old Man’) and family friend Chumlee serve up an entertaining mix of history and negotiation.
It’s ‘Antiques Roadshow’ meets ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ served up Vegas Style!
The setup is simple:
- Rick and the Old Man own the Gold and Silver pawnshop in Las Vegas.
- People bring in strange, interesting or downright weird items.
- The history of the item is determined and explained.
- And then the haggling begins with a standard question: ‘What did you want to do with this: Pawn it? Or sell it?’
We often get to see the seller being interviewed outside the shop, pre- and post-negotiation. They explain what they’re bringing in, how much they want for it and, after the deal is done, how satisfied they were with the outcome.
Rick and his family are canny negotiators. You have to be to survive in their business! And they’ve been at it for quite a while. They’ve honed their techniques over time, and they work very well.
Here are some of their gems:
1) The ‘Silent Close’
After Rick makes an offer, he stays silent until the Seller responds, no matter how long it takes. Pressure starts to build the moment we’re asked a question or made an offer, until it becomes nearly unbearable. Unskilled negotiators often grow uncomfortable with the silence and either accept the offer, or dramatically lower their target.
2) Set a target price and stick to it
The Harrison clan knows what things are worth, what they’ll cost to refurbish or display, and they know what things will sell for in their shop. Before they make an offer, they set the maximum they’re willing to pay. You’ll rarely see them go over that maximum, a negotiating mistake that’s called ‘chasing a bad deal until it catches you.’
3) Open with a lowball offer
The Pawn Stars often make an opening bid that sounds really low, even after an outside expert has made an assessment of the item and offered an opinion on its value. That’s called a ‘lowball’ offer, and it’s designed to get a reaction from the Seller and to test how committed they are to their position. It often results in the Seller making a large downward adjustment in their proposed selling price.
4) ‘They only know what you show’
Unskilled negotiators wear their emotions on their sleeves. It isn’t uncommon, when Rick, or Corey, or the Old Man ask, “How much do you want for it?” to hear the answer posed as a question, such as, “I’d like to get between $1,500 and $2,000??” That betrays a lack of confidence, and demonstrates that the Seller can be negotiated down. When the Pawn Stars make an offer, they simply state it, e.g., “I can offer you $600,” and they do it in a tone that makes the Seller think there’s not much room left to negotiate.
5) Be an ‘Expectation Manager’
Skilled negotiators know it’s their job to manage not only their own expectation of how the deal will turn out, but that of the other side as well, because if you can manage the Seller’s expectations, you’re going to come out on top. So when Rick responds to a Seller’s offer by saying, “That’s not going to happen,” he’s doing a great job of driving down the Seller’s expectation of the outcome.
6) Never pre-negotiate yourself
You’ll often hear a Seller say in their pre-bargaining encounter with the camera that they want, for example, $2,000 for an item, but they’d accept $1,500. Then, when Rick asks how much they want, they open well below even what they said they’d accept. That’s called ‘pre-negotiating yourself,’ and it’s a bad idea. Rick and crew know that, when negotiating, you check your facts, set a strategy and then stick to it.
7) Bring in the experts
Rick knows a lot, but he also knows what he doesn’t know, so he often brings in an outside expert to verify an item’s authenticity, age, or provenance. That saves him from buying fakes, or from paying too much for something that isn’t quite what it appears to be. That’s called using an objective resource, and it’s a great technique. Not knowing something isn’t a weakness. Not knowing something and plowing ahead anyway, is. (Just ask Chumlee about his ‘The Gibson’ mandolin!)
8 Explain the benefit
Sellers on Pawn Stars are sometimes confused about the difference between the retail value of an item and what Rick and company will pay. In other words, they don’t understand the benefit in dealing with Gold and Silver Pawn, but Rick is happy to explain:
- “That’s the collector’s price, and I’m not a collector.”
- “Cash money today, $100 bills!”
- “You don’t have the risk of an auction, you don’t need to clean or restore it.”, etc.
There are times that you need to explain to the other side the benefits in dealing with you, to make it obvious why they should deal with you.
9) Want vs. Need
Rick is often interviewed on-camera out of the presence of the Seller, and he’ll show real enthusiasm for an item, but in the presence of the Seller, he’s typically much more reserved. That’s the difference between want and need. It’s OK to want an item, but when the other side thinks you need it, the power in the negotiation has shifted to their side of the table.
10) Fairness counts
Above all, Rick makes a real effort to be fair, because as important as outcomes are (How much did I pay? How much did I get?) it’s at least as important that the other party feels good about the interaction, i.e., that they feel they were treated fairly. Rick even, on occasion, pays more than the Seller’s asking, because it’s the fair thing to do.
So there you have it – ten of the many negotiation secrets of the Pawn Stars!
(Gary Greene is a senior management consultant who teaches negotiation skills. Here is Gary’s email contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Rise and Rise of Leftfield Pictures and Pawn Stars
Don’t miss our Pawn Stars Case Study
- Leftfield’s hard slog to the big idea in Vegas (1/4)
- Pawn Stars: Sizzle, Pitch, Green Light and Hit (2/4)
- Leftfield Pictures after Pawn Stars: A Structure, Doors Open, Renewals, Pitches, Green Lights. What Next? (3/4)
- Pawn Stars: Leftfield Puts Casting Under a Microscope (4/4)
From Brent Montgomery, Leftfield Pictures
Peter: Fantastic! Loved Gary Greene’s breakdown of the Harrisons’ negotiation strategies. He nailed it! I learned new stuff from his article. It really surprised me considering that I’ve given notes on 115 episodes of Pawn Stars. I had missed negotiating techniques that they were using all the time, and that I could have used myself to further Leftfield’s business.
And a Producer
Your stuff is always so amazing. Thank you for this. I have recommended you to many, and hope to work with you sometime.
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