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The Art of Haggling (and when not to do it)

By on Sep 30, 2012 in Travel Tips | 7 comments

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Wherever I am in the world, one of my favourite pastimes is browsing the local markets, whether it’s a flea market in London, a souk in Morocco, or a small stall in Bolivia. Markets give you a real flavour of local culture, there is always a buzz of energy and so much to stir your senses.

The culture of haggling is almost synonymous with markets, and it can make the whole shopping experience come alive in a quick repartee. However, it is practised differently in different countries and cultures, and being aware of local practices can make a big difference.

 

market stall

In the souks of Marrakesh, haggling is an art form. It is an expected, almost obligatory part of the transaction and is to be entered into with aplomb. The first price proposed by the seller is a deliberately inflated one; it is up to you as the buyer to push it down to a more realistic level. It’s fast-paced, energizing stuff, with lots of bluffs and theatrics on both sides. The deal is often sealed with a mint tea ceremony, a fitting finale to the performance art version of haggling.

However, in the less flamboyant highlands of Bolivia, stall holders are generally more reserved, just honest, hardworking folk who have already put a fair price on their items. I will never forget watching two tourists haggling aggressively with a woman who had a small stall at the edge of the Salt Flats in Uyuni. The husbands of these women earn a pittance processing salt, and to supplement the family’s income, the wives make little ornaments and trinkets out of salt to sell to the tourists. The couple in question were trying to knock 2 or 3 bolivianos off the price of an ornament, which had an exceptionally modest price tag to start with. For the tourists, 3 bolivianos is nothing – equivalent to about 20p – but for the seller, those bolivianos have a lot more value. The whole thing was just embarrassing to watch.

Salt market

Market at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

It definitely pays to do your research beforehand – guide books are often a good place to start for general haggling etiquette. If in doubt, then try passive haggling – a technique I use in most market situations, because I am nowhere near bolshy enough – even in the souks of Marrakesh – to propose a ridiculously low price. So in any market anywhere in the world, if I ask the price and it seems unreasonably high, or even simply more than I am prepared to pay, I just say something like: ‘oh well, I think I’ll leave it then, thanks. It’s too much” – and start to walk away.

This gives the trader the freedom to choose – if it’s not a haggling situation, they will just let me go. However, if the price is open for compromise, they unfailingly call me back with a: “Wait! Perhaps I can give you a better price.”

In this case, I almost always turn down the second offered price and wait at least until the stall holder does the: ‘Let me just talk with my brother/father/imaginary person behind the curtain’ and comes back with a significantly reduced offer. This allows me to strike a bargain in a fair way, without a confrontational approach.

At the salt stall in Bolivia, I approached after watching the excruciating transaction with the tourist couple. I asked the price of a large pot. It was too much, so I said: “I’m sorry, that’s a bit too expensive for me.” The woman pointed to a smaller pot and told me a distinctly cheaper price. She looked at me with kind eyes.

“I will even paint a flower on it for you,” she said.

I accepted, without haggling. It was a very fair price for a very unique little pot.

 

 

 

 

7 Comments

    • Katy

      15 October 2012

      Post a Reply

      Thank you Charu :) The situation nearly made me cry – they are just such kind, honest people trying to get by. Seeing the tourists being so confrontational was horrible.

  1. Katja

    17 October 2012

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    Oh, what a lovely story. I had tears in my eyes at the end.

    I’m also very bad at haggling. I messed up royally the other day in my local market in Catania. I went there looking for pine nuts, and found a stall that was selling them. So I greeted the middle-aged woman on the stall and told her what I was looking for. (First mistake. Should have been more circumspect and asked the price first.) She asked me how many I wanted. I didn’t have a clue, as I work generally on handfuls rather than weights when cooking, so waved my hands vaguely and said, ‘ooh, I don’t know, 200g?’, at which point her eyes lit up, and she told me they were 5 euros for ‘un etto’.

    As I said before, weights and measures are not my thing, and I’d never heard of ‘un etto’ as a measurement so couldn’t even guess how much I would get for my money. 5 euros sounded like it would be a large amount, though, so I asked her how what an etto was. She, anticipating a sale, measured it out into a paper bag on the scale and showed me. “Un etto. Cinque euro,” she said. I looked at it and realised that an etto was hardly anything (I now know it’s 100g), and that I couldn’t afford to pay that much for so little, so, embarrassed, I said it was too expensive.

    She, quite rightly, was furious with me. Not only had I wasted her time but I’d insulted her by saying the nuts were overpriced. Of course, that wasn’t what I’d meant at all – I’d meant that they were too expensive *for me* – but the language barrier and embarrassment conspired against me to turn me into an idiot. I walked away feeling dreadful. On the plus side, I’ve learnt two lessons: 1) an etto is 100g; 2) don’t give the impression you’re going to buy until you’re damn sure you’re going to do so!
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    • Katy

      17 October 2012

      Post a Reply

      Thanks for sharing your story, Katja, it can be a minefield, can’t it?! Good tips, thank you!

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