Picture the scene – you’re navigating through the labyrinthine alleyways that divide the hundreds of different stalls of a local market and you find the one. It’s the item you’ve been dreaming about since you got there and that one thing that will keep you up at night if you don’t buy it. You approach the vendor with that telltale twinkle in your eyes and ask him tentatively how much it costs. Like any good businessman or woman, the seller capitalises on your naive ardour and quotes a price that makes you choke on your own enthusiasm.
This, my friend, is where haggling comes into play. Virtually every tourist in the world is seen as a walking ATM and let’s be honest, if you can afford to go away on holiday it’s unlikely you’re living on the breadline. With this in mind, can you really blame market-workers in the developing world for hiking up the prices when they see you? Of course not, but to help you navigate the minefield of negotiable pricing, here’s our guide on how to leave a market with your precious item in tow without getting ripped off in the process.
1. Be confident
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out who’s new to haggling and who is a seasoned pro. Hesitations, fidgeting, looks to the side for help from your mates are all dead give-aways that you don’t really know what you’re doing. Once you’ve found something you want to buy, the first thing you need to do is put on your poker face, ramp up your confidence and approach the stall as if you haggled your way right out of the womb. Make eye contact and give them a starting price of about half of what you’re willing to pay. From there work your way up until you both agree on a price. Whatever you do, don’t let the seller know how much you want the item as they will exploit this. Act as though you’ve seen plenty of cool things today and whether you leave with this one or a different one from someone else matters very little to you, even if the item you’re holding in your hand is the single most incredible thing you’ve ever laid eyes on.
For most people haggling is a game and you’ll definitely find that when doing so you’ll catch a lot more flies with honey than vinegar. Just because you’re not giving away how keen you are doesn’t mean you can’t have a smile on your face while you haggle. If you aren’t rushed for time then there’s no harm in taking a few minutes to chat with the seller – more often than not they will be interested to know where you’re from and what you think of their country. Inject a bit humour into the situation by cracking a joke or two as this will keep the entire scenario light-hearted and avoid any heated price-related discussions. When you finally agree on your price be sure to show your appreciation and let them know you’ll recommend them to all your friends (you don’t actually have to do this but it always goes down well nonetheless).
3. Know when to stop
There’s nothing more cringe-worthy than seeing an abrasive foreign tourist working themselves up into a self-righteous frenzy because a vendor won’t drop their price by the equivalent of a pound, dollar or euro. As much as they puff out their Ralph Lauren-clad chest, stamp their Havaiana toting feet and nearly shake the Ray Bans right off their face, they just can’t get the seller to drop their price any more and the whole scenario suddenly becomes incredibly undignified. They probably just heard him sell the same item to a local for less and are outraged at the double standard but at the end of they day, who is going to benefit from that extra dollar more, them or you? If you find yourself making a scene or getting irate over a trivial amount then you should take a step back, re-assess the situation and graciously pay the tiny bit extra for what would have cost you about ten times as much back home anyway. If nothing else it’ll give you a couple of extra karma points.
4. Be prepared to walk away
Having said all of that, you don’t want to get played. While haggling over a dollar or two is pointless, when the amount is still ten, fifteen or even twenty dollars above what you know it should be, don’t let yourself be swindled out of your money. However, as opposed to becoming a red-faced embarrassment barking numbers in frustration, remain polite, make it clear you are not willing to pay that much and then simply walk away from the situation. You could even tell them you know of a cheaper seller around the corner depending on how plausible this is (if theirs is the only stall in the vicinity then this probably won’t work). Nine times out of ten you’ll be chased or shouted after with a much more reasonable price. If not, don’t worry as chances are there will be plenty of other similar items on sale elsewhere in the country’s other markets.
5. Know the language
OK, this isn’t the easiest thing in the world if you are somewhere like Thailand where you can’t even read the characters, let alone know what it says. However, for countries in Latin America and francophone Africa, knowing how to count and say basic phrases like “how much is this” will make you look less like a dumb tourist and will help you no end when it comes to bargaining. In Asia and the Middle East, if counting is too much of a challenge, learning the words for ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ will get you a long way and are sure to put a smile on any market seller’s face. Especially if they have spent all day serving tourists shouting English numbers at them in slow, patronising tones.
Ultimately, bargaining over goods at a local market is an opportunity to meet local people and strike up conversation so always go into the exchange with humility and good humour. Who knows, that vendor could provide you with a recommendation for somewhere off the beaten track that becomes one of the highlights of your trip.
Have any haggling tips of your own that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments section below.