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.