As I’ve mentioned before, Nathan and I love to visit the market in every town and city we go to. Each one has it’s own unique flavor and vitality. But there is one common theme to all the markets we have ever seen – the art of bargaining.
Market in Arequipa
Markets around the world – (clockwise: La Paz, Saigon, Bangalore & Zhongdian)
Bargaining is huge part of the culture in many places throughout the world. This can take some getting used to for people from fixed price countries of the West. There are feelings of guilt associated with bargaining in the US. It’s as if by counteroffering with a lower price we are telling the person that the price they put forth is exorbitant, or even deceitful. Bring this uneasiness to a developing country, when you know you are relatively wealthy compared to the local population, and these feelings are amplified.
Souvenir fabrics from haggled for in the markets of Bolivia
But it doesn’t have to be that way. What if we can reimagine bargaining to be an exciting activity, even a way to asimilate with the culture, instead of something to be apprehensive about. For some people this comes more naturally than others. Nathan, for example, sincerely enjoys the bargaining dance. He briefly touched upon this at the end of his post on New Delhi, specifically noting the use of the head waggle to agree on a deal. India was our head-first dive into bargaining, especially with the rickshaw drivers. They are relentless and will spend plenty of time trying to wear you down to agree to their price. It was good practice for the months of negotiation to come in Asia. Nathan took care of all the rickshaw haggling and became an expert bargainer, utilizing a no holds barred approach. I would occasionally try my hand at the bargaining dance in the markets. Truth was it still made me more nervous than excited. However, the most compelling reason for me to continue trying was that it is inherently part of the local culture. To get the most authentic experience of a place I strive to do as the locals do. In the end, by bargaining you are participating in an important local ritual.
Souvenir dolls for negotiation in China
How hard you bargain is a personal choice and is also dependent on the item you are purchasing and the local context. For example, food generally has a set price. You get a bowl of pho not just in that market but on the next street and pretty much anywhere in all of Vietnam for around the same price. Therefore, vendors are not likely to quote an excessive price. Even tourists will have a sense of the costs of food. But this also depends on context. Souvenirs, local handicraft and clothing all tend to have a sliding scale and thus require a little bargaining. Anywhere considered to be a tourist center will jack up prices and it’s definitely worth bargaining in these situations. Prices will come down fast because, without fail, there will be another shop nearby selling the same thing.
Chinese hand gestures for numbers, essential for market bargaining. Note that ten can also be represented by a closed fist, palm facing forward (Image credit: Cognition, Volume 116, Aug 2010)
If you can point to one country being known for its skillful bargainers, it would be China. The Chinese treat it as sport and they are top bargaining athletes. It is not uncommon for people to ask what you paid for your belongings and offer their opinion on whether that was a good price. When a good bargaining match goes down at the market, people gather to watch who “wins.”
Nathan knows how to go for gold as a bargaining athlete
Nathan, of the no holds barred bargaining camp, has taken to the Chinese model like white on rice. Through much practice, he has become a haggling pro. I decided to do a little interview with him so that we can all learn some hard bargaining tips.
You’ve seen something at the market you like. What now?
There is much to be done before you even make your first contact with the vendor. First, scope the market to see how many stalls are selling the same thing (often times, it’s quite a few). Try to eavesdrop to hear what they tell others the price is. If this doesn’t work, casually ask a few vendors what the price is without getting into the bargaining, just to get a sense. After you’ve selected a vendor to bargain with, make an assessment of how hungry they are for a sale. Are they calling out to you? Following you? They may be more willing to go down in price than someone who acts disinterested. After doing this homework, there are three questions you should ask yourself before going in: 1) How much am I willing to pay for that item? 2) How much do I expect them to quote as a price? and 3) What price would I consider it to be a steal?
How do you begin the bargaining dance?
Learning how to say “how much?” is extremely useful. If you don’t even have that, it is a good idea to carry a pocket calculator around to type in prices. Most vendors will also have a calculator to help the process. The key thing is to insist that they give the first price. They might ask what you’re willing to pay but don’t let them get away with that. They know the value better than you. When they do give you an offer, refuse this price as too much. This is true even if the price is lower than expected or even lower than you’re willing to pay. My personal strategy at this point is to wince at his or her offer as if I was just kicked in the stomach. Remember – it’s all a game to play!
How much do I counteroffer?
Don’t counteroffer – at least not right away. That would be showing them your cards. Instead, tell them to lower the price for you. If they insist that you give a counteroffer you can start with 30% of their asking price (though read up on this as it can vary slightly country to country).
He or she seems annoyed or offended!
As soon as you show interest in a particular item you are signalling that they are selling something of value. That’s a compliment. They will not be offended by the bargaining process. They are professionals that do it everyday so they will be sure to make a profit. If they do seem annoyed, it’s part of their act to make you feel like you are getting a ridiculously good deal. Do not feel awkward, instead get used to drawing out the process, ask the cost of a few things that you don’t even want, talk to the vendor next door, then return. Sometimes they’ll even call their “boss” to check if the price is okay, making you feel even further validated. In the end, they are under no obligation to sell to you if they don’t like the money you are offering.
When do you stop?
If the price isn’t to your liking, simply walk away. Many times this is enough for them to chase after you with a lower price. You can always return to resume bargaining from the price point you left off at. If you’ve followed these steps you will eventually get a sense of their lower limit. And if that price jives with yours, it’s a deal.
Anything else we should know?
Getting a good deal takes time and patience. Sometimes, even taking a day to think about it and returning the next day or at the end of the day is helpful to get a better price. Also, when bargaining, consider getting multiple items for a lower unit cost. This is particularly useful for small gifts.
Thank you, Nathan, for the excellent advice! Not everyone is ready for this advanced level of bargaining. And each person has their own style (I will never be able to do the wince like I got kicked strategy with a straight face). But that’s why Nathan is a good travel partner for me. I determine what to buy and he gets me a deal. Win-win!
Have fun on your own bargain adventures!
Our excellent hotel stay in Naxos, Greece, where we paid half the initial offer.