American travelers are often hesitant to plunge into a foreign bazaar and haggle with sellers. But this is the natural and expected way of doing business in much of the world, so a little preparation can help you enjoy your trip more, and maybe bring back a story with your souvenirs.
The following are some general rules and advice for travelers in foreign markets and bazaars gleaned from experiences of bargaining in Turkey, Nepal, India, South America, China and North Africa. In most of these countries US$ are accepted in additional to the local currency, so it’s a good idea to bring $1 and other small bills. Few countries have any currency black markets any more, so there is rarely any legal problem with using US currency. English is often spoken,
but in countries like Morocco, French may be the common language; but many bazaaris speak multiple languages. These suggestions reflect my experiences and preferences, which are highly personal. There are many other approaches.
Have fun – don’t take this too seriously. Negotiating a sale should be of benefit to both sides, not adversarial. Approach the process with a sense of adventure. You probably can’t insult the vendor, and
nothing they say to you should be taken personally. Treat it as a game of charades. Even if you share few words in common, you can use gestures. Many vendors have calculators to make your offer. Others write on their hands if paper isn’t available. Write your counter offer if the seller doesn’t understand
o Pay what it’s worth to you – ask what something is made of, but especially in markets, covered bazaars and souks, be wary of claims that sound exceptional. Don’t expect to “buy a camel for donkey prices.” Ask questions before making any offer. Look at several items. You’re not likely to find antiques or high quality jewelry on a tabletop, but be alert since it can happen. Better quality metals should have a hallmark (eg, sterling silver often has a 925 mark). Usually, choose items because of their value to you, not because it’s claimed to be sterling silver or pure jade. In many countries, silver, gold and semi precious stones in shops are sold by weight, with no consideration of the work involved. So look for hand crafted items. Here you’ll be bargaining not for the item, but for the price per gram of silver, etc.
o Sellers never lose – don’t worry about offering too little. If you do, they’ll probably just laugh and ask you to give a little more. On rare occasions, a vendor might just say it’s too low and give up, so you have the option of raising your price or trying somewhere else. Walking away will usually let you know if your price is too low. If it’s within range the vendor won’t let you walk out without making a counteroffer.
o Making low offers at the start of a trip is an excellent way to gauge the marketplace, since there are no rules for pricing and it will vary from city to city and even market to market. Some guidebooks tell you to offer 1/3 or 1/2 the asking price, but astute vendors will have read these guide books too! This general rule can cost you money if the vendors are asking 5 or even 10 times what the item costs. On a trip to China I saw the same item in different cities being offered for 250, 150 and 80 yuan. In all cases, the price I finally paid was between 15 and 30 yuan. Items in tourist areas are likely to be inflated much more. And if it’s a quick stop, such as a tourist bus or boat stop or outside a museum or other attraction, be ready to bargain quickly and sharply (I’ve closed some deals through the window as the bus drove away). These can be places to get very good prices, since the vendors sell high volumes, but they’ll also start very high. But don’t make a low offer if you’re not interested in the item at all – the buyer may take your offer, and the only real insult is to make an offer and then not honor it. Once you name a price, you should be willing to pay that price if the seller agrees. But you’re never obligated to come to an agreement.
o Quantity discounts – you’ll usually do better by combining several items. You might start bargaining for one item, then offer to buy 2 for a lower price. Or, if the bargaining is stalled, add another item to the pile and accept the buyer’s last offer. Changing currencies can be useful if you can do the math quickly in your head (sellers will always be able to do these calculations faster than you can). Eg, after bargaining in the local currency, offer dollars instead. Locals will often be able to get a better rate of exchange than you can, or dollars might be a hedge against inflation in some countries, so US$ can sometimes command a 10-20% premium. If you pay by credit card, expect to pay a few percent more. Be a bit careful if you agree on a price in dollars and then use a credit card — the amount has to be entered in the local currency, so check that the exchange rate used is a reasonable one.
o Using your local guides – This varies both in the country, and how long your guide will be with you. If the guide is just with you for the day or if you’re with a large, organized tour, it’s rarely useful to have them bargain for you. Some local guides don’t like to let their groups free in bazaars or souks, when they can earn a commission by taking them on a ‘factory’ tour. (Other times the reason is just the hassle of keeping track of everyone, and then having the entire group wait when someone gets lost in the souk. If you’re on a large group tour like this, courtesy demands you stay with the group, and find time to return later on your own.) If a guide is with you for a longer time, they may be able to find special prices or items for you. Many guides have connections that can get you discounted prices. Sometimes this can result in a good value, sometimes not – much depends on your skills and appetite for bargaining. For example, in Egypt, a young man became my guide for the day and took me to several shops making inlaid boxes and other crafts. The prices were 50-75% lower than what I had been able to bargain for in the bazaars. The ‘guide’ of course expected (and got) a good tip, but everyone still benefits and these experiences are part of the fun of traveling. Another problem with using a go-between is that you’ll need to tell them your actual price at some point, and how interested you are in an item. It’s also more difficult to use the walk-away ploy when a guide does your bargaining.
o Factory tours – Some years ago, organized tours changed from having stops at established shops, to having ‘educational’ stops at factories which just happened to have extensive showrooms. If you educate
yourself beforehand, these can be excellent places to buy. The factory tours range from extremely informative to thinly disguised selling. You’ll often be told your group has a special discount (15-20% is common), but additional bargaining is usually expected. These places usually have higher quality items than what you’ll see on the street, especially if they do a lot of overseas shipping or other wholesale selling. And there will be a wider range of items to choose from. Just remember that your local guide usually gets a commission on these purchases. That said, you can profit from these tours too — quiz the presenter, asking them how to tell their high grade jade from what you just saw on the street for 1/10 the price, or what makes a difference in weaving techniques, etc. Since these shops usually ARE selling a higher quality, the answers will usually be informative and accurate.
Where to shop in Turkey
Turkey offers many opportunities.
o Bargaining is expected.
o The Covered Bazaar in Istanbul is a great place to explore and purchase gifts. Do bargain. Gold is a good buy, and the best baklava shop is just across the street on the way back to Sultanahmet hotels
o Cappadocia is the best place for carpets, and try to go as a group for at least one carpet factory tour. Good bargains are also available in Istanbul.
o Leather goods, jewelry, lace, antiques and other crafts
o Cash — US one dollar bills are often accepted and sometimes preferred because of inflation. Bazaars and markets usually accept dollars, and dollars can be handy for a quick tip if you’re on your own, for taxi fare, etc.
o Make a copy of your passport and keep it separate from your traveling papers. It’s also handy to have copies of your credit cards, airline tickets, etc.
o While Theft isn’t a major problem – just be careful as you would in any major city. Pickpockets and purse-snatchers are the biggest problem, especially in the markets or on public transportation. Just be alert
Shopping in India A Jodhpur experience