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.
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.
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.