A Traveler’s Guide to Bargaining
Almost completely off the topic of photography, but still very focused on what a photographer needs to understand for survival when he travels to a foreign country, is the topic of bargaining. Let’s get something straight from the outset, the word is bargaining not bartering. I can’t tell you how many people get this wrong. When you trade goods and services for other goods and services that’s called bartering. When you trade cash for goods and services and you haggle over price that’s called bargaining. And that’s what we’re talking about today. The simple act of haggling over a price when you are on the road. Don’t laugh, this could save you a lot of money. Plus, it’s a fun way to enter into the culture.
My very first trip to South Asia was in 1987. I traveled throughout India and portions of Nepal. It was on this trip that I realized that South Asia was a place that I would never get out of my blood. And so it is today, even though I now live in Southeast Asia, at least two or three times a year I travel to the Indian subcontinent. But it was on this first trip I got baptized into the world of bargaining. In fact, the very first day of arriving into Nepal, while I was walking around, a young boy approached me. He had three ancient-looking statuettes of what looked like Chinese emperors. He told me they were made out of yak bone. They certainly looked old and weathered to my naïve and somewhat virgin eyes. I thought they looked amazing. I fussed over them. I told him how fantastic they looked, how cool it was they were made out of bone, and yak bone at that! I asked him how much they were. Notice–I didn’t ask him how much he wanted for them. As an American, I knew nothing about bargaining. Everything in my life had a fixed price up to that point, with the exception of maybe a used car. He told me 1,000 rupees, in those days that was about $80. I quickly did the math and figured that this price was way out of my budget. So I told him, “Thank you, but no thank you.” and walked on.
He quickly followed me, matching my pace and then the all-important words of, “okay mister. How much you want pay?” I thought, “Why is he asking me? It’s his product. He sets the price.” I told him I wasn’t interested because it was too expensive, and not in my budget. He quickly came back with a lower price, almost half of what he started with. I was a little taken aback. It seemed like an awful lot of wiggle room. I knew enough to keep walking. Following me like a new puppy, looking up excitedly he kept saying, “okee, okee, how much you want to give mister?” “How much do I want to give? It’s your priceless antique! You make the price.” Finally, he gave me another price of around Rs.750–still too high for me. This went on for a while as we walked the streets. He started getting increasingly nervous and I didn’t understand why. Finally he came down to a price of around Rs.150 in those days that was about twelve dollars US. I figured, for a triptych of priceless antique yak bone statues that was a pretty good deal. I paid the boy and he took off like a shot out of a gun. Just a few feet further I turned the corner and there to my amazement saw a large eight-foot long table covered in priceless antique yak bone statues all identical to the ones I had in my hand at that moment. I asked the vendor how much for a set of three? He looked at me sheepishly, and carefully said questioningly, “How about Rs.25?” Rs. 25! That’s two dollars! I had just paid for a $12 lesson in bargaining–one I would not soon forget.
If ever there was a time to remember the age old adage of, “Caveat emptor” or “Let the buyer beware.” it is when traveling to a new and unfamiliar land. There is an art to bargaining and one that I didn’t learn until I married a Filipina. Asians seem to be naturals at the art of bargaining–I think it is passed down through the mother’s milk. My wife became my mentor over the years. At first, I felt rather offended when my wife would tell me to stay back and out of sight when she started her bargaining with the vendor on the street. But I soon realized she was protecting us from the dreaded, “skin tax.” The famous carny, P. T. Barnum is credited with saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” I think he was talking about expats. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a traveler walk up to a street side vendor and ask the price for an item and get quoted 50 to 100% more than the price a local would pay. But the unaware visitor quickly and unquestionably pays it. That price discrepancy is called skin tax. But let’s be fair, it is not all because they are visitors, some of it is the way the game of bargaining is played. Let me see if I can explain.
Understand Mr. Shopkeeper has no real fixed prices. There is a sense of “What the market will bear.” at play here as well. This goes for everyone, local and foreigner alike. So if Mr. Shopper goes up to Mr. Shopkeeper and asked, “How much for a hand made lamp?” Mr. Shopkeeper sizes up Mr. Shopper and quotes a price. If Mr Shopper says, “Ok.” and turns around and buys it, the Shopkeeper will assume he quoted the price too low. In the same way, if Mr Shopper comes back and counters with an offer and Mr. Shopkeeper quickly agrees, the same thing happens. So to keep everyone happy, the price is set high originally so that there is bargaining room. Now Mr. Shopkeeper will say some exorbitant price and Mr. Shopper will come with some incredibly low-ball counter offer. By the time you’re done you meet somewhere in the middle which is approximately the market cost of the object.
Here are seven guidelines that might help you the next time you find yourself bargaining over three priceless antique handcrafted yak bone sculptures:
- Be willing to walk away. You have to decide, do you really want it? The fact is, you may never get back to this country again and as such it might be worth paying a little extra to take home something you find fascinating and unique from a far- off land. Otherwise, be prepared to turn your back and walk. This is key to any bargaining. This gives you the upper hand and the power over the situation. I don’t mean to just pretend to walk away. But to be willing to actually leave it alone and walk away and not buy it. This is akin to that old saying, “if you love something let it go. It’ll probably come back to you.” In this case the shopkeeper might come running to catch you as you walk off.
- Know your limits. It is a bit like going to an auction. Auctions make their money from people who get carried away and end up buying something they really don’t need just because of the fun of bidding. But if you set your limit and stick to it, you are safe.
- Start bargaining with the price that’s about 50 to 75% below that which is originally quoted. At this point watch closely the face of Mr. Shopkeeper. Is he’s shocked? Is he insulted? Or is he sizing you up? If it’s the latter, you’re sitting pretty good. If it’s any one of the former, you may have to go up quite a bit. But be advised that sometimes shock and feeling insulted is actually part of their game.
- Do not show a strong interest in the product that you want to buy. Shopkeepers can smell your interest in something. They know if you’re truly interested the price will be a lot harder to come down. Look at other things and act as if you’re just settling on the object you really want.
- Look for a flaw or defect in the product. Use these defects as a bargaining tool, after all if it’s defective it should be discounted. Be prepared for the shopkeeper to remind you that it’s handmade and all handmade objects have flaws. The fact is, this probably is true.
- Be very animated when you do your bargaining. Use hands, your voice, your facial muscles. This shows the shopkeeper that you are really determined to get a good deal.
- Don’t gloat. Once the shopkeeper agrees to a price, don’t gloat or be smug. Be gracious and thank him for such a great deal. Tell him he drove a hard bargain and that you really didn’t want to pay as much as you did. This will leave him with a sense of victory. The fact is, there is a good chance you still got taken.
By the way, brace yourself when you return to your hotel, family or friends you are staying with. There is a very good chance that they won’t acknowledge your victory. Rarely will a local friend or family ever confirm to you that you got a killer deal. It’s kind of like losing face, but on a national level. There is no way a visitor will get the best of one of their shopkeepers. Just live with it and be happy.
If push comes to shove and there is no bargaining to be made you can always ask for the “free gift” [1. Great Malaysian made video that shows you how to use the “free gift” tactic.]. This is a tactic used a lot here in Malaysia and Singapore. Everyone is so used to receiving bargains that when a company or shopkeeper just can’t give a bargain, or has gone as low as they can, it is not uncommon for the buyer to request a “free gift.” I recently did this while trying to get a good deal on my new scooter. The dealer just didn’t have much wiggle room to give me any discount. So I asked, “Then do you have a free gift for me?” The dealer quickly said she would throw in a cover for the scooter and some side guards. These were not insignificant, at least to me, as I had been planning to buy them anyway. But be advised, the free gift tactic doesn’t always work. A few years back I was shopping at a duty free shop in the Changi International Airport in Singapore and a gentleman from India was buying a camera. At check out, after he had paid for the camera he asked, “So, where is my free gift?” The Singaporean shopkeeper was tired of this man who apparently had been rude and difficult to please, looked at him and said, “Here is your free gift!” and handed him a plastic bag to carry his purchase in.
This leads me to the last piece of advice. Just because the country you’re visiting has a culture of bargaining, that doesn’t mean it is done everywhere. There is nothing quite as embarrassing than watching a tourist try to bargain at a nice retail store or at a restaurant. As a rule of thumb, if it is a place to eat, be it on the street or fine dining–you don’t bargain. Even here in Malaysia where street food reigns king, you never bargain with a hawker for your dinner. The prices are fixed. Watch other people around you. Are they bargaining with the shopkeeper? If they are not and their paying without any discussion, there is a good chance the prices are fixed or at least they know the proper prices. Pay attention to what they paid.
Keep to these seven guidelines and you might just return home with some cool new souvenirs from your visit and still have some change in your pocket. If not, you just might find three “antique” yak bone statues staring at you everyday.