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Sunday, January 18, 2009

To haggle or not to haggle?

You're browsing a souq in the Middle East and a stunning carpet catches your eye. It would look very cool in your place back home, wouldn't it? You catch the carpet salesman's eye: "How much you want to pay?" he asks you. What do you say? Do you offer the first price that comes to mind? A price that turns out to be crazily high and makes his day? Or do you hesitate for fear you'll suggest a price so low it might insult him. Of course they rarely do, but you're not to know that. Whatever you say - if you say something - you're about to begin the process of bargaining, a much-loved sport - some would argue an art - in the Middle East, Asia, and parts of Africa. But you hate to haggle, so you contemplate stomping off, and even showing your frustration, and you wonder why he can't just tell you what it's worth. The sales guy won't care, because there'll be other tourists. But you're the one who'll miss out on the gorgeous carpet. So what do you do? Well, consider the advice of these travel bloggers over at Eric's for starters: Melanie from Intrepid 101 asks: "Do you want to engage with real local people and leave your antiseptic double plastic-wrapped lifestyle behind? If you are an intrepid adventurer, not a sunburned-pink tour bus tourist yearning for their next Big Mac, haggle." The Daily Transit's Ben Hancock argues "Unless you’re scraping or have no access to further cash, there’s rarely a legitimate reason for travelers whose bank accounts are stacked with strong currency to demand they get the same price as locals. Providing you’re not getting wildly ripped off, just count on spending a bit more won, yuan or baht if simply because you can afford it and these people have ends to meet." Gary Arndt from Everything Everywhere remind us that "A price is what a willing buyer will pay to a willing seller. Nothing more, nothing less. There is no “correct” or “right” price, or for that matter a “fair” price," and tells us "I have yet to meet anyone who had their feelings hurt during haggling. If anything, they will respect you more for playing the game well." Gary's advice is so true of the Middle East in particular. Whenever I write my 'bargaining 101' boxes in guidebooks to the region, I outline the etiquette followed here in Dubai where I've honed my skills - carpet shopping of course! (Read some of my advice at 10 Reasons to Shop Dubai: the Ultimate Dubai Shopping Guide at Viator.) Whether you choose to play the game or not is up to you. And I have to admit that I'm not always in the mood to haggle either. But when the moment's right, it can be fun, and sometimes the pleasure has nothing to do with securing a bargain, rather it's the social interaction. And, you know what, that's often true for the sales guy too.


Unknown said...

Interesting scenario Lara, and one that I have been in a few times. I agree with most of what has been mentioned, and for what its worth here some personal factors that come to mind. I sometimes depends who I'm with (will I come across as cheap or travel-wise?). Do I have cash (cash and sometimes the desired currency)which usually gets a better price. Do I have the energy? Is it early in the day (always get a bargain for the "first sale" in Asia)? On small ticket items I have a usual no haggle policy - give the retailer a break and support the economy. On large ticket items I like to haggle a bit because it might mean wearing the "guess how much I paid?" badge, but the price also comes with a long haggling session. On large ticket items I usually do some research or look around first.
We escaped without purchasing anything in an Istanbul carpet shop after a 2 hour stay, and we consider that a substantial feat. When it came down to it, there was nothing we really "loved." If there was, I think we might have haggled, but not too much. I agree, fair price - if you're happy with the merchandise, and happy with the price, you've won the day.

Lara Dunston said...

Hello Gregory - agree with you entirely. Mood definitely plays a major factor in whether I haggle or not, whether I play the game, and, I'm with you, definitely not worth it on small ticket items, but lots of fun in a carpet shop with the whole ritual of the carpet unrolling and endless glasses of tea - if you're in the mood! Thanks for dropping by!

Fly Girl said...

I generally like to haggle if it's a part of the merchant culture. Americans are often hesitant about haggling for prices in poor countries but if you can read the seller's intentions, you know if they are taking advantage of you or you're taking advantage of them.

Prêt à Voyager said...

It's fun to play along for so long, but by the end of a trip, I'm usually relieved to get back to set prices. It is good practice for playing it like a local. I just get mad when they skyrocket the prices just because they know they can take advantage of us. My best example comes from India. There were 500 students coming off the ship, so they knew they had a market and could work us. Too bad for them the game was to see which snake charmer friend of theirs or mall they could take us to (they got commission of course). At "Spencer's Plaza," a shopping mall in Chennai, some of the shops even had signs welcoming our specific ship (with 500+, they knew we would spend). Haggling is part of the adventure.


Anonymous said...

Lara, you've hit on something that makes me terribly uncomfortable (which says a great deal :) )

Melanie's comment ("Do you want to engage with real local people and leave your antiseptic double plastic-wrapped lifestyle") doesn't really touch on the problem for many of us. I love to engage with people and I haven't purchased anti-bacterial hand wash in some time - but I hate appearing cheap or broke - just something that makes me terribly uncomfortable.

I know it is a part of some cultures to bargain. Hilariously, my friend just returned from Bali (which I can't wait to visit soon) and rented a truck for $10/day. When some of the locals heard that they laughed: "You could have gotten it for $8!" OK...

It's funny - I happen to agree that if we live in the "First world" we have no right to try to bargain with those worse off financially. But it's also not fun to be viewed the fool if you don't haggle. It's a conundrum.

Anonymous said...

I love photos of shopkeepers displaying their wares. This is a great photo. Thanks for sharing!!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Monica - you make some great points I think everyone can relate to!

I'm like you, I definitely don't haggle over a couple of dollars - I can afford it - but if I'm going to save a couple of hundred dollars on a Persian carpet, I'm going to do it! With carpets, it's also expected and is part of the experience.

The locals laughing at your friend losing out on his deal? That's something entirely different. It's a demonstration of their wisdom and local knowledge (they probably don't travel or travel little) compared to your friend's worldliness through travel. It's about power through knowledge, and I'd let them have their little joke. It doesn't hurt anyone, really, but it makes them feel good about themselves.

Hi Jon - thanks! And thanks for visiting!!