How To Bargain While Travelling

Woman merchant

Don’t Lose Your Shirt While Buying That Sweater

Let me begin by saying that bargaining does not come easily to me. My personality is two parts softie for every part hard-nosed negotiator. But I have traveled the four corners of this world, and I have done business with some of the most skilled merchants on the planet (hello, North Africa) and come away with some beautiful local stuff that I still cherish. I cherish it all the more, in fact, having worked hard for the price.

I am compelled to write a mini-guide to bargaining mostly because I see people have such a hard time with it. I see them walk away with a) a bad deal or b) no deal at all or c) worst of all, hard feelings on both sides of the transaction. it just isn’t necessary.

Here, then, are Don’s Rules for Getting a Deal While Travelling.

Rule One: Bargaining is business, not personal.

It’s business. Never forget that. You don’t need to be a dick about it. Never lose your cool, never insult the merchant. It may be frustrating; you may find yourself nervous or exasperated or tired or discouraged; that is normal. But never forget that you are a guest in someone else’s country, and a little respect will take you a long way toward a good deal and good memories (and a good impression of you and your country after you leave.) Never disparage the item you’re bargaining for; don’t call out its shoddy workmanship nor the quality of the shopkeeper’s merchandise in general. This is rude, and it makes you look silly: why on earth are you bargaining for something you don’t like? Which brings me to…

Rule Two: Don’t start bargaining if you’re not serious.

If you have no intention of buying the thing, don’t make an offer. Bargaining is not an idle recreational pursuit; it is hard work for all parties. This does not mean, of course, that you are under any obligation to purchase the item if you’re unable to negotiate your price. Just don’t be disingenuous about it.

Rule Three: Decide on your bottom line before you start.

This is the single greatest mistake we all make: we are not sure what we are willing to pay for an item, and thus get quickly caught up in the excitement of the exchange… and get taken for a ride. Do your research. Have some idea of the value of your item before you start bargaining. Quietly walk through a few shops and see what they’re asking. Talk to your fellow travellers. Get online and do some searching around. Knowledge is power. Decide what price is the absolute maximum you’re willing to pay, and start bargaining well below it.

Rule Four: Be realistic.

If you’re looking for ridiculously good deals on high-end items (gemstones, cashmere scarves, gold and silver) you may need to adjust your expectations. There is no such thing as cheap gold, cheap silk, cheap Prada. Anything that is suspiciously inexpensive is likely a knockoff. Can you tell the difference? Did you know, for example, that teensy-tiny nylon-producing nozzles can be configured to function just like a silkworm’s spinnerets? Almost anything can be faked nowadays. If you can’t spot the real thing, stick to reputable fixed-price stores and stay away from bargaining altogether. A fool and his money are soon parted, particularly in Mexico and Asia, and I have belonged to that club more than once.

Rule Five: He who makes the first offer compromises the most.

Do not start the process by naming a price; let the merchant do it. If there is a sticker with a price on it, open with, “I just love this carving/ring/sweater, but I’m afraid that price is a little outside my budget.” Then close your mouth, blink innocently, and wait for the merchant to counter-offer himself. Then get started with the bargaining. If you have a clear idea of your bottom line, simply place your final price halfway between the merchant’s first offer and your first offer. IE, merchant says $60, you want $40, start at $20. Or, start even lower and see how well you can do, never going past your $40 mark.

Do not worry in the least about low-balling your first offer. Do it. What’s the worst thing that can happen? The merchant will refuse to counter-offer; he will ask you to be serious. Sometimes they laugh at you. That’s fine: it’s business, not personal, remember? Inch your price up, little by little, and be patient. Hold your ground as you approach what you believe to be a decent value. Don’t feel guilty about (respectfully) driving a hard bargain; in bargaining cultures, it is absolutely expected of you; it is understood that both parties will try to get the best deal possible. A merchant will never sell an item to you at a loss.

Don’t be bullied and don’t be rushed. After a while, the merchant may stop bargaining and say, “I’m sorry. I cannot sell it at that price.” (Or, if you’re in Morocco, “Get out of my shop.”) Now you’re getting somewhere. At that point you tell him you understand completely, thank him kindly for his time, wish him a good day, and walk out of the store. And one of two things will happen: the merchant will let you go, and you write it off as a learning experience. Make a mental note that the item is going to cost you a bit more than you’d planned. (Mind you, if it’s early in the day and the cruise ships are in town, the merchant is simply betting that someone else is willing to pay more than you are. Consider returning tomorrow, or late in the day when he might be more willing to make a deal.)

The more common scenario, of course, is that the merchant will come after you, drag you back into her shop, and start negotiating again. This is an indication you’re coming close. Hold your ground, don’t get greedy, and close the deal.

Rule Six: Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get the world’s best price.

Merchants are almost always better at bargaining than you are. That’s how they stay in business. Go easy on yourself—you probably got a decent deal in the grand scheme of things, and a local merchant got a little cash. You got a beautiful item, you got a story and you got some memories. The most important thing is to cherish them all.

"The Best Choose" sign

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