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all in the family

Bargaining is somewhat of an innate ability for S, likely inherited from her grandmother who, rumor has it, would even try to bargain with the cashiers at Macy’s. Like her grandmother, S has no qualms about bargaining from a weak position. For example, when we arrived in Zanzibar late in the evening, D went over to the taxi stand to negotiate our fare in Swahili. After the driver agreed to drop his “listed” fare, S coolly informed him that he had not dropped it enough and that he had to lower it further before she would agree to go with him. One could imagine the driver replying just as coolly, “Fine, suit yourself – spend the night at the airport,” but he did not and we got a better deal.

We’ve found in our travels, however, that bargaining, much to S’s chagrin, is not a part of every culture. After negotiating prices in just about every Latin American country between Mexico and Argentina, our experience in Nicaragua caught S off-guard. Vendors there quite simply do not bargain. In one instances, when S asked for a discount on an item she saw at a market, the vendor offered to knock off the equivalent of ten cents from what was roughly a twenty-dollar item. And even in Thailand and Laos, where they do negotiate, S noticed that one could easily offend the seller by setting a price point that was too low.

Different travelers have different bargaining strategies. Some say there is a one third rule and that one should try to pay less than one third of the original price, but it often depends where one is, how much of a foreigner one appears to be to the seller, and what the item is. One friend of ours is an ardent advocate of what he calls “re-anchoring.” He says that rather than let the vendor quote a price, which he would then have to negotiate downwards, he tries to start the conversation by naming a price, thereby anchoring the negotiation around his starting price point, which the vendor then has to try to raise. This tactic might work for relatively inexpensive items, especially ones whose approximate value one can estimate. However, for large-ticket items, the trick is to avoid giving a number as long as possible, forcing the vendor to decrease his/hers.

Even veteran hagglers have to accept that if they really want something, they may have to part with more than originally expected. In our case, S had her heart set on a large, carved Swahili frame. Unfortunately, she hadn’t done much research and had no idea what would be a fair price. When she finally found the frame she wanted and tried bargaining with the shop owners, it became clear that we would not get it for anywhere near a third of the asking price. S felt time-pressured because not everyone in the group was interested in shopping all afternoon so after the negotiations reached a stalemate, she shrugged and walked away, which did not elicit calls to come back or a lower price, like she had hoped.

Back at the hotel, S was struck by a deep case of buyer’s remorse and could not stop thinking about the frame. She emailed a friend who had bought a similar piece to get a better frame of reference and resolved to return to the store the next day. Thus, while D enjoyed a few more hours at the beach, S caught a ride to Stone Town with our friends, who had an earlier return flight to Nairobi. To hurry things along, S started the conversation by naming the price she was previously offered, saying how it was too expensive. The shop-keepers were happy to see her and immediately dropped the price within bargaining range. Not long after, two men were taking apart the frame, darkening the wood in caustic soda and water, and wrapping the pieces in paper for S to take home.

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  1. My friend and I were just talking about buyer’s remorse last night. I’ve learned that if I’m still thinking about something the next day, I should probably go back and buy it. I’m sure S is going to treasure that frame, especially after successfully haggling on the price.

    Oh, and the sellers getting “offended” in Asia? That’s probably just an act. Here in China they sometimes act like you’ve just insulted their ancestors with your starting price, but it’s all just part of the show.

    November 3, 2012
    • Good to know we can insult at will :) Getting the frame was only half the challenge – now we need to get a mirror for it and hang it…We’ve already been back for two weeks and it’s still sitting unwrapped in one of the spare bedrooms.

      November 3, 2012
  2. I am glad she got the frame in the end at a better price. I would rather have buyer’s remorse then pay way too much for an item. Great post.

    November 3, 2012
    • It’s a hard call…especially when you can’t stop thinking about the thing you want.

      November 3, 2012
  3. Some folks do not haggle ,or dicker, as we call it here in south Georgia ,USA. My brother grows quiet a large garden and whatever they can’t consume they take it to the farmers market and let their children sell it off the back of the truck.

    One time this man offered him a low price for some spinach and my brother told him no this is my price. Well the man continued until the point that my brother saw a woman walk by with six little children and asked her if she wanted some spinach. The lady said yes so my brother GAVE it to her for free.

    He no longer goes to the farmers market with the surplus. He takes it to the poor neighborhoods where he lives and gives it away. He said that if he had to “give” it away he would rather give it to people that could not afford to buy it.

    November 3, 2012
    • That is a great story – thank you very much for sharing. Your brother is a good man.

      November 3, 2012
  4. Kennedy #

    Reblogged this on Hakuna Matata Tours in The News. and commented:
    Nice post,

    November 3, 2012
  5. I hate haggling!!

    November 3, 2012
  6. Culture plays a huge part – both on the part of vendor and the haggler.

    As a rule, us Brits don’t tend to haggle (although the economic climate is making it more common) so having recently relocated from there to the Middle East, a region where haggling is much more deeply embedded, it’s adding an extra dimension onto our learning curve.

    So, thanks for the tips – I have a feeling they’ll come in very handy here in Doha.

    November 3, 2012
    • We’ve never been to the Gulf but here are a few more tried-and-true tips to test out in Doha.

      – Get a feel for the price before haggling. See if you can find the item in a fixed price store, eavesdrop on a sale, or casually get the starting price of an item in several neighboring shops. You can also ask a local (friend, housekeeper, etc) what they pay for certain items.

      – In many places, bargaining is expected and even part of the pleasure for the seller, breaking up the monotony of the day. As you’ve said, culture plays a large role. It may help to think of haggling as a chance to have a conversation with the merchant. Just don’t believe every sob story and know you can always add your own (we used to play the student card a lot).

      – Even if you’re only buying 2 or 3 of the same item or different items from the same seller, you can argue for a discount. First name (anchor) your price or get the seller’s starting price for one item. If you’re interested in buying more than one, then you can name your price for multiples. That said, don’t feel obliged to buy an extra or unrelated item that the seller throws in to keep the price point higher.

      – Have small bills to make exact change. Once we’ve nearly reached an agreement on price, sometimes S will name a final price and say that’s all she has, even so much as taking out the exact change and handing it to the seller. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try.

      November 4, 2012
  7. In my travels I have never done the haggling, sitting back while my mom does it, but I love listening to the responses that the venders give her and the reasoning she uses. She tells them she needs the money to put her children through school. They tell her they need money to feed their families. My favorite vendor was a man in Istanbul who told us frankly, “I want your money.”

    November 3, 2012
    • We’ve had a similar experience with forthright vendors. And shopping in Istanbul was fun – we wanted to get one of the really nice Helena backgammon boards and went back to the Grand Bazaar two days in a row until we could figure out what the actual price point was. D used to haggle when he traveled solo, but since S is so much better at it (and seems to enjoy it), he cedes to her whenever we travel together. When we were in the Seychelles, he picked out some artisanal beach jewelry and didn’t even ask the price – just told S what he wanted and went back to the beach to read. She came back 45min later, all smiles – she probably paid half of what D would’ve for it.

      November 3, 2012
  8. The lady in the picture does not look happy! I hope her bargaining went well!

    November 3, 2012
  9. Daddy #

    (Parental) Editorial Note: We have a long history of bargaining… Occasionally threatening to hit seller with a brick to reach our price-point. S, it’s in your genes…
    Love, love Dad

    November 3, 2012
    • I don’t know Alan, S tells me she gets it from her mother’s side of the family. Love, D

      November 4, 2012
  10. I remember trying to buy a painting in Zanzibar. The seller told me it was 90 dollars but I was asking for 60 and after a long negotiation I realized he won’t sell it to me for 60 dollars so I bought it for 60 dollars and hug.

    November 3, 2012
    • S has a couple of other bargaining tips she was going to include with this post…but I don’t think offering a hug was one of them. Nicely done!

      November 4, 2012
  11. I’m not good at haggling, but I’ve learnt that if I fall in love with something (rarely happens) and can afford it to buy it, otherwise I’ll regret it later. Often the things we fall in love with are nothing to others, but jewels to us.

    November 3, 2012
    • That’s very true. If something makes you happy, there’s no sense in denying yourself.

      November 4, 2012
  12. You do not bargain in most areas of Canada. So not the end of the world. The only situation I might bargain is if I grew food or made something.

    November 3, 2012
    • Not much bargaining in the States either – I think part of the reason S likes traveling so much is that she enjoys bargaining and gets to do it when we’re in countries that do have a bargaining culture.

      November 4, 2012
      • I guess. I think particularily in the poorer developing countries, I wouldn’t be pushing super hard on lowest, lowest of bargaining prices….already those folks are trying to eke out a living.

        November 5, 2012
        • Many people feel that way. There have definitely been times that S has negotiated to get a lower price but stopped arguing when the amount between her price point and the seller’s wasn’t really all that much. “Why argue over 2 or 3 dollars? To the seller, it’s a full day of meals, to me it’s half an hour’s work.” This mentality is certainly valid. On the other hand, some people feel strongly that paying the price without haggling equates to being taken advantage of and spending three or four times the price that locals would pay is not affordable. For us, it also depend on whether we’re buying consumable/household goods (which locals also buy) versus decorations/accessories.

          November 5, 2012
  13. Sometimes I can get caught up in the idea of getting the best price and lose sight of the fact that actually I really want something. Nothing worse than getting home empty-handed for the sake of very little!

    November 4, 2012
    • Sometimes it’s also easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re at times not arguing over much…it may be thousands in the local currency but it translates to only a couple of dollars. Definitely worth it for big-ticket items though.

      November 4, 2012
  14. I flunk in bargaining. My mom is the super ‘bargaining’ hero in my family. She just have the talent to talk it out with the sellers, I’m amazed every time she worked her magic. :P I love shopping with bargain hunters! Great post!

    November 4, 2012
    • D’s dad is also an expert haggler, but he takes more after his mom, who doesn’t do it as well. D’s also fully in awe every time S works her magic.

      November 4, 2012
  15. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

    November 4, 2012
  16. I used to dread the idea of haggling. Then I went to China and discovered that I loved it. I’m headed to Singapore this week and will see if I still have the knack.

    November 4, 2012
    • We haven’t been to Asia (unless you count Turkey and India/Laos/Thailand for S) but we keep hearing great things…enjoy your trip to Singapore!

      November 4, 2012
  17. I wish I could bargain. My friend Pei is great, so cheerful, but firm. I’m clueless.

    November 4, 2012
  18. I’ve found hanging around and eavesdropping on other buyers to see what other people are willing to pay is helpful when in an unfamiliar place, but there is the time-pressure factor. Bargaining really is about how much you want it, how much time you have to negotiate for it, and how much the seller needs the money now rather than later.

    November 4, 2012
    • Perhaps that’s why D is not as good a haggler – the wasted time gnaws on him more than the wasted money.

      November 4, 2012
  19. The only experience I have with bargaining comes from Malaysia. I actually found the experience of bargaining to be highly enjoyable. To me the price of the item wasn’t important, what was important was the challenge of lowering the suggested cost to what I considered an interesting point. Generally the easiest place to barter was Petaling Street, but my favorite bargaining experience was convincing a cab driver to port 9 people at one time in his 5 seating cab to Sunway Hotel where we were staying. He did it quite happily at a lowered cost.

    I wonder if other people have had the same experience as I have though, and I wonder if cultures where bargaining is practiced consistently only do it for a thrill and not simply to acquire a cheaper deal.

    November 5, 2012
    • S had a friend from her study abroad in Ghana that was the same way – found bargaining enjoyable just for the fun of it but not necessarily because the item itself was of interest. He acquired some hilarious pieces in the process.

      We’re getting the sense from all these comments that we need to pay a visit to somewhere in Asia soon.

      November 5, 2012

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