Haggling and Bargaining – Negotiating a Fair Deal

“Now you’re getting it.
Eleven?! Did I hear you right? Eleven?!
This cost me twelve. You want to ruin me …”
– Monty Python (Life Of Brian)

In most countries it is customary and expected for a certain amount of haggling to be part of buying and selling goods and services. Items with negotiable prices will vary from region to region, but will generally include taxi fares, guide and porter services, souvenirs, hotel rooms, and anything for sale in a public market. In all but the rarest cases, bargaining for prepared food is inappropriate.

The ultimate object of haggling is for the buyer to purchase a product for the absolute lowest price a merchant is willing to charge, while the merchant attempts to sell the product for the absolute highest price the buyer is willing to pay. However, an adversarial approach or displaying anger (feigned or not) should be avoided, as it may lead to someone losing face.

Crowded Street Market in Cairo, Egypt

A crowded street market in Cairo, Egypt

Haggling should leave nobody feeling ripped off or taken advantage of. It should be an enjoyable and even humorous process. The idea is to pay a price as close as possible to what a local would. Accept that you will always pay more than a local would, regardless of your haggling prowess. The idea is to narrow the difference as much as possible.

When you leave a shop or market stall, all parties should feel the transaction was mutually beneficial. You should be happy with the money you spent and the merchant should be happy with the money they made.

Sharing tea with a merchant while they display a selection of their wares is commonplace. General precautions apply whenever accepting food or drink from strangers. However, accepting tea and other gifts in a shop doesn’t oblige you to purchase anything. But, if you and the merchant agree on a price for an item, you are obliged to buy it at that price, and they are obliged to sell it to you at that price.

Souvenirs for sale in a Souq in Marrakesh, Morocco

Souq in Marrakesh, Morocco

Do Your Research

If you see something you must have, and are willing to bargain for it in earnest, do some research beforehand. Visit an artist’s workshop to get an idea of how a product is made, and how an original, quality piece differs from mass-produced junky kitsch. Develop a sense of value by comparing the price of the item where you are to what you might pay back home, taking into consideration the differences in production and transportation costs.

Go into a competitor’s shop and ask the price of a similar item. Hum and hah, turn the item over, shake your head, point out flaws in workmanship – provided the merchant didn’t make the item themselves. Ask for a discount or the lowest price, and learn how to say “too expensive” in the local language. These are all methods of reducing the price without actually uttering a number. Pick up another item and ask its price. Do the same with several other undesired objects, showing equal amounts of disinterest, with your intended purchase thrown into the mix.

Souvenirs for sale at a market stall Otavalo, Ecuador

Souvenirs for sale at a market stall Otavalo, Ecuador

Repeat the process at a few other shops. This will give you an idea of how low merchants will comfortably go to sell the product, and indicate the real (tourist) price. When you have decided on the highest price you are willing to pay, and are ready to bargain for it, keep the haggling light-hearted and good-humored. For example, turn out empty pockets (to express lack of money) or jump up and down with your hand extended above your head (to express the highest price you are able to pay).

Haggling Tactics

Do your souvenir shopping in the morning, as many shopkeepers consider an early first sale auspicious. They may also be more inclined to accept a lower price than they ordinarily would with higher demand later in the day.

Colorful Gulal Abeer powder for sale in Mysore, India

Colorful Gulal Abeer powder for sale in Mysore, India

Some people always start at a third of the price, while others offer half and don’t budge. The process should at least appear to be mutually beneficial. If you don’t participate in the spirit of bargaining, the merchant may feel they are making all the concessions while you make none.

A good first offer might be half of what you are willing to finally settle on. This could be as low as 10% of the merchant’s initial price. The merchant may appear shocked, but don’t be fooled. They know the game far better than you ever will.

Ask for a better price if you pay with cash or buy several items. This can be a good final tactic after you’ve gotten individual prices reasonably low. It can also be useful when bargaining for a hotel room or buying a number of gifts for friends and family. You can also use smaller/cheaper items as bargaining chips. If you think the final price is still too high, agree to pay it if another marginal item or two, like a couple of postcards, are thrown into the deal.

Crowded National Day market on Nanjing Lu in Shanghai

Nanjing Lu in Shanghai, China

Thanking the merchant and moving towards the exit can often bring about a reduction in price. As will claiming to have found the same or similar item at a competitor. And, you’ll always get a better price from a child vendor than an adult.

Buyer Beware

Circumstances will always determine the amount of bargaining power you possess. For example, if you arrive somewhere late at night, and there’s one room left in the hotel, the room rate won’t come down much. Likewise, if you are the only one to disembark from a bus into a taxi rank full of cabs, you may find the price of the fare start increasing, rather than decreasing every time you try to strike a deal.

Negotiating with a Weaving Vendor in Pai, Thailand

Diane haggles with a friendly weaving vendor in Pai, Thailand

Bargaining for a souvenir will be much more difficult in a shop full of tour groups. If the merchant sees you in their shop a second time, or if they know you really have your heart set on it, you’ll pay more for it than you otherwise would.

If the situation calls for it, for the sake of all tourists, you must haggle. Failing to do so will label you as a gullible pushover, and this stigma may very well reflect on others coming after you, rendering a fair price even more difficult to attain than it already is.

Basket and Hat Vendor in Fes, Morocco

Basket and Hat Vendor in Fes, Morocco

If you don’t speak or understand the language, at least learn how to count to ten. A pocket-sized calculator can be an invaluable tool, or use the one on your phone. To avoid being surprised by incidental charges or costs after the fact, be sure the end price includes everything you need and want and the agreed price is in local currency, not US dollars or Euros.

Cheap Tourists

The merchant needs to make a profit to stay in business, so look at the value of the purchase, rather than a rock-bottom price. Unfortunately, many people pride themselves on the ability to drive a hard bargain. Shamelessly putting the screws to a merchant, who may be desperate to maintain some kind of cash flow in an adverse economic situation, just to save a couple of dollars or a few cents, is hardly something to be proud of. This attitude also casts a miserly and greedy shadow on other foreigners.

Traditional Market in Shaping, China

Local goods for sale in a traditional market in Shaping, China

If it comes down to nickels and dimes, it’s best to accept the merchant’s lowest price than they accepting your highest. This helps avoid anyone losing face. If you have done your research, and are confident you are paying a fair price, rest assured the merchant is getting one as well. It is important to keep perspective. The couple of dollars you may be haggling over is probably much more valuable to the merchant than it is to you.

Busy Market in Cairo, Egypt

Crowds gather at a busy market in Cairo’s Old City

There are dozens of bargaining strategies, but not all strategies work everywhere. A technique successful in one region may be completely ineffective in another. Sometimes a more subtle approach is required, if any at all. Experiment with different strategies and make up your own. Remember to always smile, say “thank you” and “goodbye”, shake hands and have fun.


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