a helping hand in haggling

Haggling.  I’ve found that there are two ways to approach this particular travelling phenomenon.  The first is to curse and gesticulate, capitulate and give up, and altogether hate every second of wandering down the packed-to-the brim stalls with the incessant calls of “best prices, BEST PRICES”.  The second is to embrace it, and throw yourself fully and completely into the fray.  Unsurprisingly, I belong  firmly to the latter. I love haggling.  Nothing beats it, and some of my favourite moments have sprung from those endless back and forwards, offers and negotiations, and (my favourite tactic) walking away.  There is an art to haggling, it is something that ought be approached with finesse.  This I’m yet to master, but, though I say so myself, I’m damn good at spotting what I want and refusing to budge even a dime on a top price.  And, more often than not, the sellers will want to sell their wares more than you’ll want to buy them. So, here are my top tips to give you edge:

1. Smile and Gush

Stall holders often play the “oh, beautiful lady!” card. Who can’t be flattered by this, even knowing it’s a selling tactic?  My counter approach is to get in there first, smile, introduce yourself, and make sure to say how delighted you are to be in their country, their city, at their stall, and above all, compliment the wares.  But the trick here is, unlike the dear men in Marrakesh whose finest line was, and I quote “OH, SHAKIRA. HEY, SHAKIRA. I WILL GVE YOU HALF OF MOROCCO!”, don’t go overboard. Mean it. If you see a particular scarf or bowl that you like, tell them.  There is nothing wrong with honest compliments and a friendly attitude, and whilst at the end of the day it is business, who knows, maybe that you approached with friendliness instead of impatience will get you somewhere.

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Befriending a beachside stall holder in Rabat, Morocco. He’s now a patisserie chef, and someone I still hear from!

2. Diversion Tactics

Identify what you like, then choose something else and LOVE that.  This works for me sometimes, it depends how convincing I am.  But if you see something you really like – for me it was a little wooden lizard in Malaysia (for those who have read my post on the dragons of Tioman, why I chose a lizard as my little travel reminder won’t come as a big surprise!), with which I instantly fell in love with.  Instead of leaping straight in to haggling for him though, I instead targeted a jewelled lantern, which I had (correctly) assumed would be far far more. After some back and forth over the prices for that, I sighed and sadly admitted: “I cannot spend that much, but you have been so kind and so helpful, and I understand that you cannot sell your things for that little, so I want to chose something! That little wooden lizard over there, he’s sweet, and would look good on my wall, and he can’t be that much?”. Success, the shop keeper was happy to go with the price I had set in my mind, and I walked away with little lizard! As I said, it doesn’t always work, but it’s certainly worth a try.

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Far right, little wooden lizard safely installed at home! The much-loved result of a good diversion tactic.

3. Bluff

This was first deployed in a market in Mombasa, Kenya.  My delightful Luo friend and adopted guide, Toto, had taken me to the famous street markets to buy some spices for my family back home.  I was happily haggling away, convinced that I was, frankly, excellent when I heard a chuckle behind me.  Toto took me aside, informed that I was being scandalously ripped off, and imparted what would soon to become very well-used advice: “if you are out as a girl on your own, just say your husband/father (depending on your age, and how well you can bluff) will not be happy if you spend that much”. Often shop keepers have responded well to this, and as much as it sounds like stereotyping, but he was absolutely right: particularly in areas where patriarchy reigns, this respect of your father’s wishes will go down a treat.  My success story ended with a bag of saffron and a blend of famous Mombasa spices for cooking fish.

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4. Walk Away

I know the feeling. You’ve been there for hours, it’s soo hot, and to be frankly honest, you never really wanted the damn dress in the first place.  I know we’re all extremely polite, and so this may seem shocking, but it isn’t horribly offensive, and you can just walk away.  Not only can this get you out of ending up with something you didn’t really want, but at times it can also get you exactly what you wanted! The number of times I’ve got to the end of my haggling tether, even with something I really wanted, and thought, right I will just walk away, and if it’s meant to be mine, they’ll come after me.  Surely enough, having been friendly and enthusiastic from the beginning, the shop keeper often calls me back, albeit accompanied by “you’re robbing me!”, and we come to the agreement I’ve been pushing for for the last five minutes.  Note: the only place this method hasn’t worked is the Karama Market, Dubai, those guys are tough to crack.

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Marrakesh sorely tested my “just walk away” mantra. But sure enough, back I was summoned, and along with a lovely red pouffe for my brother, the shop keeper also insisted on tea and photographs!

5. Never, Ever Go Above Your Price

After accepting that yes, you will be charged more as a tourist, and after setting the uppermost price boundary for yourself, the trick is not to budge.  Don’t be tempted to just go that little bit higher.  I know it might only be the difference between £12, and £18, which doesn’t seem an awful lot, but remember that you can always swing back around later after a cooling off period and face the haggle again, and more often than not, there is a stall just along the way with very similar articles! My absolute exception to this is antiques or artefacts.  If you have a guarantee that what you’re after is a genuine antique, not a Made in China, and if you really want it, then don’t fuss yourself over a few pounds.  And whilst this may seem contradictory to the overall tip of never, ever going above your price, what’s priceless is knowing what is worth those pounds (like an antique) and what just isn’t (knock off bags, trinketty jewellery, scarves). Start low, I go for a quarter of the asking price, regardless of whether I’m actually willing to pay, say half.  It’s not a problem to give a little and offer more, but is insulting and offensive to drop down again.

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Swinging back around again to the Jerusalem markets later in the evening after resisting going above my flight the previous day.

6. Make a Local Friend

I see nothing wrong with stall holders having a price for tourists, and a price for locals.  This is their livelihood, and yes of course someone travelling is likely to have more money to spare than a local.  But this doesn’t mean I’ll just accept that hands down instead of finding foxy ways to get around it.  My favourite is befriending a local.  If I haven’t managed to make a genuine friend on the road, which happily I normally do, then it gets more difficult.  But my favourite shopping companion in Kyrgyzstan was Suiunbek, who I trusted entirely, and regularly dragged along to the markets with me, offloaded a shopping list and handful of som onto, and sent into the wild depths of Osh Bazaar. I knew he could get me prices I would never be able to get, and I was quite happy in the knowledge that even if I had successfully sidestepped the local-tourist prices, before long other tourists would come by to be ripped off so I wouldn’t dent the economy too much.  Plus, it’s unavoidable, I’ve been ripped off in the past, and will be ripped off again in the future, so am perfectly guilt-free in sidestepping when I can.

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It’s a little more convincing to send a friend to get spices, like here in Jordan, than dresses, which I tried to send poor Suiunbek to do in Bishkek once!

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