Most people love to shop when they travel but when it comes down to figuring out the price, many don’t know how to bargain. In the United States, we are used to seeing fixed prices at the stores we visit. Not only that, the prices are displayed on the items or we are given ways to scan the bar codes to discover the details. This is not the case in most of the world. Whether you looking to purchase something in a market stall or directly in an artist’s studio, you can expect to do some bargaining before you arrive at the end price. There are lots of nuances for bargaining but today we will keep it simple and save your advanced bargaining tutorial for another day. So please join me and learn how to bargain the WanderShopper way.
First, let’s talk about some of the reasons why you should put in the effort to learn how to bargain because I know it is going to feel awkward and uncomfortable for you to do in the beginning. I promise you there will be a payoff in the end and it won’t be just more dollars in your pocket. You should learn how to bargain because it is the way most of the world conducts business. From ancient times up to present, most prices are not preset so learning to bargain effectively will allow you to fall in step with the traders of the ages. Believe it or not, somewhere inside you it’s in your genes. Practicing bargaining in a fun setting while you travel will help you be prepared for the bigger negotiations back at home like when you purchase a car or a house.
Secondly, to the locals you will look stupid if you don’t. Everyone bargains, so when you don’t and you pay the first price offered, you appear to be a few camels short of a caravan. When you bargain with authority, other opportunities will open up to you as you will be participating in the local culture in a predictable and respectful way. Once you demonstrate that you’re not a dumb American tourist, the shopkeeper may bring out his best wares he was holding back as you’ve earned the right to consider them when you earned his respect. He will begin to look for ways to gain your confidence rather than how to take advantage of you.
Knowing how to bargain also gives you the opportunity to take part in the dance that is local commerce. The conversations and the maneuvers both seller and buyer offer are part of a time honored tradition that allows people to get to know each other. The seller may tell you why he deserves, or needs, more money for an item. As the buyer, you may share your troubles of the day and how expensive your hotel is and how the taxi ride there took all your cash. The give and take back and forth can actually be enjoyable and open up opportunities for you. Once you’ve settled on your price, you may find the seller can help you solve some of your other problems such as where to have dinner, where to find a certain souvenir or how to get to your next destination. By going through the act of bargaining, you are giving yourself the time to get to know someone local who after a successful sale will be more likely to help you.
When do I bargain? Anytime you are sincerely interested in an item. Do not begin to counteroffer a price if you do not intend to buy an item when the right price is reached. It wastes the shopkeeper’s time and will not be appreciated if you walk out on your purchase when a fair price is offered. And word will spread. Just because there are many shops down a street or a market aisle does not mean you should assume that they are all independent businesses working against each other. You are more likely to find they are family members or neighbors and word of your inappropriate behavior will get around. In most countries, you can also assume that bargaining is expected unless you see signs posted that state they are a “fixed price” store.
What can I expect when I bargain? The more value an item has, the more time you should expect to spend in reaching the final price. If you are just picking up some fruit in the produce market for a snack, the negotiation should be rather quick. However, if you are looking to purchase an antique carpet you should expect to, at minimum, sit down and share some tea with the dealer. You may even spend multiple days over a few visits before you both reach a mutually agreeable final price. You can also expect to pay more for an item as a foreigner than a local person would pay for the same item. That’s an understandable custom you will find everywhere. You know your family, friends and neighbors take care of you specially when you are at home.
Let’s get to the basics of how to bargain. Once you’ve found a treasure you want to take home with you, begin by asking the price as it often won’t be listed. Sometimes it is even written in a code only the merchants understand. You can plan on whatever is quoted to you will be somewhere between 2-5 times what is expected you should pay in the end, especially if the vendor has already determined that you are an American. You’ll find that to be one of the first questions you are asked when you step into a shop and the seller is not just making conversation. Where you are from will help him set the scale he will use to know where to start his initial price. American’s are expected to be rich and capable of paying high prices. We also have the reputation of not liking to bargain so there is a better chance he will earn a higher price when the American gives up and pays out just to be done with it.
If you are truly interested in having the item, you should make a counter offer. If you are just curious, or are trying to begin to establish the going price of an item where you are, you should say “thank you” and let them know you will think about it. In most cases, if one shop offers a local specialty you can bet that other shops may offer similar items if not the exact same item. In few cases, will you find something that is truly unique. By learning the starting prices from different stalls, you can develop your own guide of what you should have to pay to obtain your desire.
Your counter offer should be quite a bit lower than you think you are willing to pay. If you go too low, you will insult the shopkeeper. He’ll let you know by looking disgusted and walking away. Even when you hit a reasonable counteroffer, he may feign concern and ask you how you expect him to feed his children if you pay him prices like that? You will know that the negotiations are on if he stays with you and either offers you a price lower than his initial quote or he holds firm at the price. You can now move up a little in your price.
As you negotiate, both you and the shopkeeper will offer reasons to justify the price you’ve offered. The vendor may talk about the quality, how long an item takes to create or how rare and special it is. As the buyer, you can state the obstacles to buying it such as it may not quite be the right size or color, it may be hard to transport home or maybe something about it is a little broken, dented or stained if you are looking at a vintage item. Giving reasons why the price should go down or come up is part of the bargaining dance and shows you both are serious about the transaction. But you can still have fun. Just as the seller can be dramatic when he responds to your lower offer, you can look stunned that he expects you to pay such an exorbitant price.
How do I know when I’ve reached the best price? Ultimately, the best price would be the lowest you are willing to pay for an item and still feel good about what you have paid. When I bargain, my goal is not usually to get the absolute lowest price I may be able to wring from a desperate vendor. There is something to the fact that I am an American and have a different standard of living than he may have. I expect the shopkeeper to gain some profit from the transaction. That is only fair. You should be aware that in most stores in the U.S., the markup above cost is always at least double. One of my benefits to the local community when I travel is to leave behind some of my dollars so that families can eat, children can afford to go to school and health care needs can be met. Leaving profit for the seller allows all of these things to happen. When you are in a developing country, the prices are already significantly lower than you would pay for an item back at home so you can be generous with your final agreed upon price.
How do I know if I’ve won? Bargaining can feel like a game or sport and it can get your competitive juices flowing. For me, winning when I bargain means that both myself and the seller are happy with the price. I haven’t paid too much and he has walked away with some profit. I also expect that the item I walk away with is what was promised and is of the quality or age it was stated to be. When everyone is satisfied, I consider that a win.
Is there anything I can do to get an even better price? There sure is and it is known as quantity. Buying more will always improve the price over buying one thing. That may mean buy three t-shirts instead of one. It might mean buying several different things from the same shop. Or it might mean grabbing a friend and agreeing to each buy the same thing which is another way to grow quantity. The more you buy, the more likely a merchant will be to cut your price or to throw in an extra item for you to take home. The other thing you can try if the negotiation seems to have stalled at too high a price is give up and walk away. You may find that the merchant will come after you and the price will move down again. If you’re not chased down, you may have hit the lowest it will go and if it is still too high for you, you then have to keep walking and let the item go.
Paying in cash versus by credit card is another way to get a better price. The credit card companies charge merchants a fee for each transaction so a portion of their profit is lost when you use your credit card. Of course they would rather make the sale and lose the credit card fee rather than losing the whole sale. But keeping those extra dollars do really matter. You will discover that having the appropriate amount of cash on hand will be favored by shopkeepers and will result in a discount sometimes.
Demonstrating that I respect the local people and their traditions is yet another way I know has caused me to receive better prices on items. I show my respect in many ways such as dressing the same way as the local women dress. In many parts of the world, that means wearing clothing that covers my legs down to my knees as well as my shoulders and chest. Walking around in shorts and a tank top is akin to wandering the streets in your underwear in some communities. I also buy some clothes in the local style early on and wear them. Not only do they make great souvenirs but it also shows that I am trying to join their community and respect their customs and that I am not trying to impose my ways on them. I always receive compliments on my traditional dressing attempts and have often received better pricing than others I’ve compared totals with who dress as tourists. I also learn a few phrases in the language of the region so I can say hello and thank you, at minimum. The effort is noticed and rewarded.
I hope I’ve given you a few ideas about how to bargain. You can practice your skills this weekend by heading out to a local flea market, antique or vintage store as well as hitting the yard sale circuit. These are all situations where bargaining is expected and you can try out some of your moves before you add in additional dynamics like jet lag and other languages. So I challenge you, WanderShoppers, to go out and get yourself a deal this weekend. And be sure to check back for my advanced bargaining tips in the coming weeks.
I’ve honed my bargaining skills while traveling around the world. If you would like to see more pictures of the markets I’ve wandered as well as items I’ve discovered, head on over the the WanderShopper Facebook page and check out my WanderShopping the World album. I’d love to hear about your experiences too. Leave me a message about your favorite bargaining experience or item you’re proud to have gotten at a great price. Or maybe you have questions about bargaining that I can help you solve in a future post. What is your biggest obstacle with bargaining?
Until we shop again,