Today’s post comes courtesy of long time reader, first time guest blogger Julia, currently at an undisclosed location in Bangladesh.
Having spent a total of ten months living and traveling in South Asian countries, I’ve done a fair amount of haggling. Sometimes I worry that I’m embarrassing myself for a little money, but usually the outcome is positive for both parties—after all, you’re both agreeing on what is a fair price! How could you not end up happy?
I also gained some insights recently when I traveled alone during a short visit to India. In one touristy beach town I visited, many shops employed at least one young man to lure tourists inside. I made friends with many of them. I sat outside their shops with them and played “Which country?” guessing games about the passing tourists. (Actually, it was a guessing game only for me. They’d already perfected it. They all know smatterings of at least eight languages, and know which ones to use on sight.) They were sweet men. Not only did they buy me tea and share their lunches with me, they also they told me their trade secrets and taught me a few bargaining tips. I felt like I was making a documentary without any video camera!
Find the things I’ve learned about how to get a fair deal after the jump.
+ The basics: People usually advise halving the initial asking price and working your way to the 75% mark. This usually ends up being about right. If they’re being really stubborn, walk away. They’d rather have some of your money than none of it, and unless you (or they) are being really unreasonable, they’ll usually call you back, lowering the price in the process.
+ Do some research: It’s best to begin with a price range in mind. Check out prices at a fixed-price shop. Ask your friends (ideally, locals) what they would pay for an item, and if they know which sellers are most trustworthy. If it’s a spontaneous bout of consumer lust that precludes careful planning, it’s still likely that there are five other merchants in the same market selling the same thing, or something very similar. Ask around and then focus your energies on the place with the lowest starting price.
+ Make yourself likable: As much as possible, speak the language. Wear culturally appropriate clothing. Be friendly, and reveal your humanity (explain why you need a pepper grinder, or that the blanket they’re pushing on you is too big and awkward to take home on the bus). It can even be useful to play up your cuteness and flirt a little (not sexy flirting—that’s trouble!—just cute flirting). Nobody wants to rip off a person for whom they feel fondness or loyalty. That said, everyone wants to rip off a person who looks rich! Though you can’t abandon the aura of foreignness you carry with you, do leave your abundant gold jewelry, imported SUV, haughty attitude, etc., at home. [Editor’s note: it doesn’t hurt to lie and say you’re from a country “poorer” than your own, if they ask where you’re from — just pick one whose language they are unlikely to know (i.e. Poland).]
+ Don’t be Russian: I’m told Russians are the most notorious hagglers. Experienced sellers to tourists start really high with Russians (the actual price times ten!) because they know they won’t be content without a battle. I’m not sure what this says about haggling in Russia.
+ Fake them out: This is a new one for me, but I’m told by top-secret sources it works: don’t reveal right away what it is that you want. If you head straight for the true object of your desires and gush over it as you clutch it to your chest, they know they have you. Instead, keep it in the corner of your vision while you investigate other products. Then casually ask its price. They have little reason to inflate it if they think you’re not so interested (the law of demand at its most basic).
+ Do be reasonable: I never haggle on food items and rarely (or not much) for office supplies or books. Many things have an established price that can’t be negotiated (what those things are is something you need to learn—it varies by country). If your first thought is, “Holy buckets, that’s cheap!” just buy the thing (I mean, assuming you’ve been in the country for long enough to have adjusted your views about what “cheap” is).
Considering the exchange rates, getting a fair price is usually more about maintaining your pride than it is about maintaining your budget, so sometimes I just make a show of haggling. Recently I bought a cup of tea in Dhaka. He charged me 10 taka (about $0.15). Where I live (in the boonies) it’s only 3 taka ($0.05) for a cup of tea! I told him so. He said, “Yeah, but this is a big cup.” And it’s in the city. Fair enough. I didn’t really think he was ripping me off, but, just in case, I showed that I know a little something about what tea should cost. He can have that extra 7 taka, so long as he doesn’t think I’m a dummy! My general rule is that I’m okay with paying twice as much as the locals, just not ten times as much.
Remember that paying double is not the end of the world. I bought a pair of earrings in India, for example, that I was worried I’d paid too much for. They’re silver, and heavy, and sold by weight (and really I would have been just as happy to have lighter ones made from tin or shiny plastic). I tried to lower the price more, but was persuaded to take them at 700 rupees (about $18—seriously, self? $18 for earrings?). Later I showed them to one of my shopkeeper friends at the beach and asked what I should have paid. He thought 400 rupees, 600 at the very most. When I told him what they’d actually cost me, he looked shocked for a moment, but then relaxed his face and said, “Well, that’s okay. So he got a couple hundred rupees profit. It’s ok if people get a profit once in a while. That’s how we eat.” Then he offered to buy them from me, bragging that he could resell them for more. We spent a while trying to negotiate a price, but I couldn’t get a profit I was happy with, so I kept them. They’re really beautiful earrings and a souvenir worth more to me than I paid.
Such are the whims of the market.
Julia and I attended the same American university, a small place whose rhythms were punctuated by a train slowly slicing through campus five times per day. I therefore thought the following video was a fitting addition to Julia’s post: