Published November 16, 2011
When it comes to shopping in foreign lands, let's face it, Americans are not comfortable haggling over prices. It makes us feel uncomfortable and rude. In some case we’re even willing to pay more just to end the back and forth dance of the negotiation process.
But haggling is a long-embraced tradition rooted in the Middle East. It’s an art form that can be fun and should be enjoyed. Think of it with a “when in Rome” mentality, without actually trying it in Rome. (Naples, Italy is better for bargaining.)
The quintessential destinations for haggling are within the colorful stalls of Arab shuks and Asian night markets. But before you peruse with an open wallet and temperament for vague pricing, it’s a good idea to do some research.
The first place to start is to scour travel blogs and niche chat rooms, page Lonely Planet and Frommers guidebooks, and when you're there, quiz the hotel concierge in person.
Once you've got the basics down, work on your strategy. One technique is to carry various denominations of currency. It is a smart way to prevent the vendor from “keeping the change,” on large bills when conveniently lacking proper change advises BabyBoomersTraveling’s Doris Gallan.
She also suggests buying multiples to get a better price rather than shaking down a low price for a single item. “That way, the vendor gets rid of two things, and the buyer has two to take home,” says Gallan.
“If they outright refuse your price even as you walk away, it's because they can't afford to give it to you for less.”
Obviously, don’t take it too far. You’ve got to be polite and culturally aware when finessing for a good price, says Nina Zapala, a travel publicist with Anson-Stoner. The resulting exchange shouldn’t be at the expense of you or the vendor.
And then remember the golden rule: be prepared to walk away.
Here’s how to haggle confidently and walk away smiling – both with money in the pocket and bags full of fantastic purchases.
Middle East and Turkey
The Middle East and Turkey and Egypt are essentially the negotiation Meccas of the world.
“The Middle East is the best place to negotiate,” says international peace, trade, and labor negotiator Alon Ben-Meir. “Arab mentality is negotiation. It is a give and take culture that reveals the character of both of the parties involved. Negotiation is part of the process to reach an agreement.”
Arab marketplaces are home to some of the world’s best deals and merchants always leave a lot of room for negotiation. Customers should expect to be initially charged 50 to 100 percent more than the product is worth. However it’s the responsibility of the customer to get that price down.
“I was in Istanbul recently and shopping for a chess board,” says Ben-Meir. “The guy tells me “$100, so I cut the price in half, or, even more, 75 percent and then work up. I paid $45. Don’t ever listen to the reaction of the merchant when they say they can’t do that. Negotiation is expected and enjoyed. This takes out any element of deceit.”
Just don’t get too carried away with the price dropping. “I was shopping with a friend and her first price was so low that she got thrown out of the store,” says Zapala. “She went back to apologize and tried to negotiate but the shop owner kicked her out again. The price was so low it was insulting.”
Jane Akshar co-owner of Flats in Luxor Group lives in Egypt and advises Westerners on how to shop. She says knowing a little of the language goes a long way and displaying a good sense of humor is the ultimate price charmer. “The most useful phrase is ‘fil mish mish’ which literally means ‘when the apricots bloom,’” says Akshar of the Arabic phrase. “It is like saying ‘you haven’t got a snowballs chance in hell.’ This is a colloquial saying and immediately identifies you as someone in-the-know.”
Never argue, just walk out. the merchant will often follow with a better price. There are hundreds of stores with the same fabulous (and not so fabulous wares) so you can always try again elsewhere. It’s customary to be invited in for a tea or a coffee, maybe even a bite of something sweet when outside of a shop. This is the merchant inviting you in to soften you up. Sit down, relax, and ask about the product, the owner’s family, show photos of your own family, etc – this is your chance to create a friendship and soften him up too.
Be aware of Chinese factory products decorating the stalls versus the authentic, handcrafted local items in Middle Eastern markets to give you an idea about the quality of what you're buying. But remember, it's hard to tell the difference.
Most European countries have fixed prices, but Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece can offer some excellent haggling opportunities in the southern parts of their country due to the history of influence by Middle East culture.
“The French find it insulting to bargain, especially if you are a foreigner,” says Zapala. Given the tough sell with the French, there are exceptions: the famed Les Puces de Saint-Quen marketplace for example. However, bone up on your French.
“When possible hire a local to help…[but] like anywhere in the world, be prepared to walk away if the price named is not what you are willing to pay,” says Zapala. Also, with high credit card fees affecting vendors universally, paying with cash always helps the haggle process. Consumers who hustle down a price outside the store – on the street -- have much greater success than those suggesting a discount inside.
China, Korea, and Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam are also hot spots for negotiating good deals. However, the merchant’s mentality is entirely different.
“The gap between the asking price and what they settle for is a bit less than in the Middle East,” says Ben-Meir. “When it’s $100 you end up paying $70. In the Middle East they enjoy the give and take and find the exchange a pleasure. In Asia, it is not considered an enjoyment. It’s just what they do.”
Expect a lot of screaming when bargaining in China, says Matthew Zaklad, an automotive consultant with AMCI China. But don’t worry, in China there is no grudge-holding mentality.
“It’s like a massive confrontation at the moment of desire,” says Zaklad. “The buyer will beat the seller with words and the seller will yell back until they reach an agreement, but then, there’s no emotional recourse after the sale is done. It’s intense and then it’s over.”
Unless you really do something to tick off a Chinese merchant says, avid traveler, Andrew Schrage. A little humor helps in Asia too, but not after completely wasting someone’s time and energy. “My friend bargained for about ten minutes on an item before saying he no longer wanted it,” says Schrage. “Because he had used up their time, they became extremely pushy and even slapped him on the arm. They surrounded him and tried to pressure him into buying the product.”
In Hong Kong, female merchants are some of the toughest bargainers in the world. “They can talk you into buying an item for a price that is ultimately way too high,” says Schrage. “Once they see your attachment or enthusiasm, you've already lost the battle.”
In Central and South America, and the Caribbean, the haggling opportunities thrive around communities with less wealth. Shrewd merchants throughout the region typically boast impressive multilingual skills. “They are skilled at what they do,” says Schrage, “They all speak English, and seven or eight other languages. [Just] don’t say anything to your travel companion thinking that the vendor won’t understand! The process is loose. It’s a game, and they love playing it. South America is definitely an instance where not haggling over price is considered rude, and you will certainly get ripped off if you don’t haggle.”
The best deals are outside of the touristy cities such as Bogota, Colombia, Quito, Ecuador, Cusco, Peru, Buenos Aires, Argentina, says Robert Rose, host of Raw Travel. “In very touristy environments, you’re approached over and over again by locals trying to sell you something inflated,” says Robert Rose. "You either get good at saying “Gracias no,” or, run out of money very quickly.” The less touristy and more rural destinations simply offer non-inflated prices, “so there really is no need to haggle aggressively,” he says. Within some indigenous groups, haggling isn’t always accepted.
Those not ready to leave home can still partake in the art of bargaining, or even practice before a big trip. There is some legroom for negotiation within the United States when visiting a local Chinatown or Arab, Caribbean or Latin American marketplace. They’re typically within major U.S. cities where large immigrant communities settle.
“People bring their habits with them into the country,” says Ben-Meir. “In Manhattan’s Middle Eastern market, you can negotiate because you’re basically in Little Syria.”
At the end of a busy shopping day, you don’t want to let a few U.S. dollars ruin the good vibe of your travel experience. Both parties should feel good about the transaction.
“Negotiation on an item doesn’t have to be a strange thing,” says Ben-Meir. “Well, unless you just want to throw your money away.”