Caravan-Serai Traveler’s Handbook

How to Bargain Effectively

Prepare to bargain! See what a good deal you can get!

For many people in the world, there’s no such thing as a Universal Product Code or price tag. The merchant sizes up the buyer, the buyer sizes up the merchant and each tries to obtain the best price.

Many Westerners dislike bargaining in foreign countries, and see it as a waste of time or, worse yet, an opportunity to be swindled. However, bargaining can be pleasant — even fun — if you understand the “rules.”

In most places where there is bargaining, there are strategies employed on both sides that are understood to be simply that: Strategies. Each side jockeys for advantage. And while there are few strategies that hold true the world over, here are some suggestions to try on your trip:

Before going shopping, ask a local person how much you should pay for a particular item. This primarily applies to food or household items that residents might buy frequently. Or talk to your concierge if you’re interested in a specific high-ticket item. Even armed with this knowledge, however, expect to pay a little above the locals’ price — it’s often a matter of pride to get a better-than-average price from a tourist.

Offer much lower than you really want to pay. How much lower depends upon where you are and what you’re buying. Generally speaking, offering a quarter to a third of the price quoted for souvenirs in most developing countries is a good start, but there are exceptions. If, for instance, you were buying a rug in Morocco, you would be foolish to offer more than a tenth the asking price (or to pay more than a fifth).

Be polite. This is where many tourists make a mistake. Insulting the seller by saying,: “Your prices are outrageous,” or “Don’t try to cheat me!” won’t get you very far, and reinforces negative stereotypes about Westerners. It’s much better, in fact to humble yourself. Pick up an item you’re interested in. “You like?” the merchant asks. “Yes, it’s very nice.” “How much you pay?” “Oh, I could never afford such an item.” “Please tell me your price.” “I’m afraid I’d insult you if I told you what I could pay. I can’t pay what it’s worth.” “Go ahead, tell me how much you pay.” Then you name a ridiculously low price. The merchant will counter with a price that’s higher than what you said, but much lower than he might quote to other tourists. You can slowly raise your price, and he can slowly lower his; you’ve set yourself up well. Americans negotiate 50-50 by splitting the asking price, but this is not the rule in developing countries where less than 50% of the asking price can be obtained. Try to figure out a reasonable wholesale price and add a reasonable profit for the seller.

Don’t denigrate the merchandise. Conventional wisdom says to point out flaws or defects to get a lower price. In practice, this is a rather transparent tactic, and the fact that you’re bargaining for the item at all is a pretty good indication that you consider the defect minor. If there is a flaw you can live with, the better strategy is to bargain your best price without mentioning the flaw. Then, just before you’re ready to hand over the money, you “notice” it. Say that you’re sorry, but you don’t want it with the flaw, and start to put it back. The price will almost always come down a little further to get you to take it. (Note: This won’t work if there are similar items that are in good condition.)

Give the merchant excuses to lower his price. Say you can’t afford the “normal” price because you’re a student. Or newly married. Or recently divorced. You have 10 children. You must support your elderly parents. You just lost your job. You just started your job.

Good cop, bad cop. If you and your companion spot something you want, one of you should say, in front of the merchant, “Look at this! Isn’t it great?” The other should look at it with disdain, say “Put it back,” and walk on. The merchant will approach the one who showed interest and encourage him or her to buy. Then, no matter what price is quoted, the answer should be, “Gee, for something that much, I’d have to ask my wife (husband).” The price will keep dropping every time you make a move to get the other spouse involved.

Have a friend do the bargaining. Merchants can tell when you’re truly hooked on an item, and will have no incentive to go lower after they’ve seen that gleam in your eye. But find a friend who is truly disinterested, give him a set limit to spend and wait somewhere out of sight. The friend should tell the merchant he is buying for someone else, and at a certain point in the bargaining, should tell the merchant that he simply has no authority to go above that price. There is little a merchant can say other than “yes ” or “no.” He can’t move your offer.

Walk away – even out the door. Sellers may chase you down the street!