Given my life-long passion for exploring the off-the-beaten-path corners of the globe (40+ countries now and counting), I’ve surely had my fair share of experience bartering for almost every trinket and tuk-tuk ride on the Planet.
From 20,000 dong ($1) “xe om” motorbike rides in Vietnam to luscious handmade wool rugs in Morocco. Delicately carved ostrich eggs in South Africa and luminous batiks in Swaziland, to exquisitely woven “huipil” blouses in Guatemala. Nubly knitted sweaters in Nepal, tattered antique textiles in Mongolia, and tiny carved bone earrings in Borneo. And here in Ecuador? Daily bartering for the freshest vegetables and fruits at my local, open-air mercado, as well as the daintiest of silver filigree earrings in Chordeleg.
In short, in almost every corner of the globe, I’ve happily bartered for every day staples, as well as exotic treasures to remind me of my travels.
While many travellers and expats are reluctant to negotiate in markets and souvenir shops in foreign lands, my own experience confirms over and over again: not only is bartering the norm in almost every corner of the developing world, but it helps to keep the local economy stable and strong. For it’s not just travellers who barter for trinkets. Trust that all the locals too, barter daily for most everything. Indeed, for we expats – NOT bartering for local foods and services in our adopted country can seriously upset the local economy – artificially pushing prices up for the folks who earn but a fraction of even the most frugal gringo’s fixed income.
And besides – with a few guidelines, the lovely art of bartering can be a most fun and welcome “dance” for both vendor and foreigner.
Bartering is but a simple skill that anyone can learn. Just follow these few tips, and with a little practice, you’ll soon be enjoying “win-win” bargaining. Nothing particularly mysterious or difficult about it mind you, but there are a few guidelines to ensure that BOTH vendor and foreigner have a good time:
1. First and foremost – let me first state emphatically what bartering is NOT. Bartering is NOT a means of getting the absolutely LOWEST price on some trinket that’s caught your fancy. It’s not at all about slowly and painfully wearing down a vendor to an insulting pittance (indeed, a humble worker who – when it comes to that stunning hand-woven textile you’re haggling over, likely spent hours upon hours, perhaps even WEEKS, laboriously weaving it by the light of a kerosene lamp) just so you can have bragging rights to how incredibly CHEAP you got that fabulous trinket for.
Rather, bartering is a pleasant means of getting a fair and reasonable price that benefits both merchant and buyer – while coincidentally having a lot of fun.
Now then, before you begin to “dance” you’ll of course want to know a few of the basic “one, two, cha-cha-cha” steps to happy and successful bargaining.
Warming up for the “Dance”
2. Learning a few words of the local language, while not absolutely essential, will go a long way towards making the bargaining “dance” a graceful waltz rather than a clumsy polka. For starters, at least learn the words for “please”, “thank you” and of course “how much?” For numbers you can simply use your fingers, else – if the digits get too high, just jot them with a pen on the palms of your hands!
3. Do your homework. Most folks get ripped off simply because they don’t know the going price for whatever item or service they’re after. So do spend an hour or so just wandering amid the various shops and listening to other travellers’ negotiations (or lack thereof) to establish the range of prices for whatever it is you lust after.
4. Look disinterested when browsing the vendor’s goods. Ask the prices of many items, not just the one you’re after. That way, you can get an idea of the vendor’s (starting) pricing. At this stage, just ask the price, and then simply say “thank you” and move on to another item or another shop.
Now then, you’re fully ready to bargain – read on for additional tips:
Time to Tango
5. Always begin bartering with a bottom line in your head as to how much you’re willing to pay, then start by offering the vendor about a third less than that. Don’t worry, you’ll never get the item for your first offer, but you’ve now tipped off the vendor that A. you’re not the usual naive tourist, and B. you’re ready to dance the “bartering ballet”, and the vendor will likely be delighted to have a little fun with you. Which brings us to THE most important rule of bartering:
6. NEVER barter unless you’re serious about purchasing the item. It’s the unspoken rule of bargaining that you’ll inch up if the vendor inches down. Though you may not get him/her to come down quite a far as you’d like, it’s exceedingly rude to walk away after the vendor has come down near to the amount you had in mind initially.
Now then – you’re committed to bargain in good faith, then here’s a few extra tips to bargain like a real Pro:
7. Feign DIS-interest. Of course you WANT whatever trinket you’re currently coveting. Indeed, likely LOVE it, else you’d not have initiated the bargaining dance to begin with (see tip # 6 above). Nonetheless, try not to show that eagerness to the vendor. Better to feign some reservation – an air of nonchalance that you could (reluctantly, but nonetheless easily) go on with your life without tucking that particular trinket into your backpack.
Mutter things like “But I don’t really know where I’d put it/wear it.” Or… even if you absolutely ADORE the color, size, detail, etc. of said lusted for item, if the vendor is not coming down near the bottom-line price you’ve got in your head – you might ask questions like… do you have it in any other colors?” (i.e. this isn’t my perfect color, I might need you to come down a bit for me to buy my 2nd choice color), etc.
8. Drag in an accomplice (a.k.a. a long-suffering but agreeable travel chum) who can play “bad cop” to your “good cop”. As you dither over the vendor’s (allegedly) “last offer” (i.e. just another shuffle-step in the dance – more often than not, earnestly vowed at several – ever lower – price points), school your chum in advance to impatiently step in and say things like “I’m in a hurry, let’s go!” Or “Remember? We saw the same [fill-in-the-blank] for less at the shop near our hotel.” Or “Come on, you don’t need that! Where are you going to put it? You don’t have any more room in your backpack.”
9. As a last resort, if – after a few offers and counter offers – you can’t get the vendor to budge closer to that bottom-line price in your head – try smiling sweetly, shaking your head sadly, and… begin to slowly walk away. Rarely will you get out the door without one last counter offer from the vendor – his (true) final price.
10. Don’t forget – the age-old “VOLUME DISCOUNT” tap-dance routine. If you plan to buy more than one of the same item (e.g. gifts for friends back home), DO bargain for an extra “volume” discount. Indeed, even if you plan to buy two or three items from the get-go, begin the bartering with a single item. Later, if the vendor isn’t coming down as low as you’d like, casually suggest you might like two or three of that item, so it’s fair to ask how much for 2? three? four? Likewise, when the vendor seems to have reached his lowest price on a single item – that’s the time to suggest a bit lower price should you buy several different items in his shop.
Pardon Me but – Would you like to Dance?
Above all – MAKE IT FUN. The bartering dance is much like flirting. Offers and counter-offers, ever inching up and down to a price that’s agreeable to both partners in the “dance”. Infusing the dance with friendly jokes, lots of smiles (and a few feigned frowns) is all a part of the game. Think of it as a little Shakespearean play – turn on your charm and show the vendor that you have a sense of humor. Remember, the vendor is fully aware of the “dance”, so twirl and cha-cha to make it fun for both of you.
I hope these simple guidelines will encourage you to try a little “dancing” of your own. Give it a go. Even if it’s only baby-steps at first – a single counter offer. You’ll get better with practice, and soon it will be fun! Not only will bartering save you a few pennies, but I can guarantee that it will add a whole new level of authentic local experiences to your travels.
This piece first appeared on TravelnLass.com.
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