Let’s cut straight to the chase– if you have the money to travel to some exotic, foreign land, then local merchants and business owners will naturally assume you’re wealthy and can afford to pay inflated prices.
It’s a fair assumption and one that all travelers must come to terms with.
However, there is a major difference between paying a mutually understood “tourist tax” and being swindled out of your money due to ignorance.
It can be pretty difficult for foreign travelers- particularly those with fairer skin- to blend into crowds and negotiate prices in a foreign country.
But have no fear! I’ve compiled a series of techniques, tricks I picked up in South and Central America and my short time here in India, which I find incredibly useful for effectively navigating the foreign marketplace.
- Keep your Cool– Nothing screams “scam me out of all of my money” like a tourist oohing and awing at everything they see. Merchants know the value of their product- they know the quality of the material, the rarity, and the median price point. Unfortunately, as a tourist, it’s much harder to gauge the worth of a vase, article of clothing, or scarf by the first impression. It’s easy to become awestruck when you see something you like. However, when a vendor sees your excitement they know that you’ll be less likely to walk away from the product. Try to always appear neutral towards items you like. The less invested in an item you seem the less the vendor might be tempted to inflate the price.
- Window Shop First– I mentioned above that it’s much harder for a tourist to gauge the worth and uncommonness of a product. When you first enter a marketplace or bazaar, consider taking a lap around the area first without purchasing anything. Take note of the items that you like and mentally count how often you see similar or identical pieces. The more often an item appears the less expensive it should be. After you’ve completed your initial scan you can retrace your steps and begin to bargain. If the merchant isn’t offering you a desirable price you’ll know whether you’ll be able to find the item elsewhere.
- Always Be Respectful– There’s nothing more frustrating than a tourist who wants everything for less than nothing. Does the shoe fit? Try not to beat yourself up. I myself have been guilty of haggling prices when their equivalents in USD were fair and affordable. Try to always keep the conversion rate in mind when negotiating prices. Sure, certain goods are much cheaper abroad. However, if you’re in the midst of a negotiation and the dealer is not willing to go any lower, ask yourself “Is this dress worth the $5 he’s asking me for?” I think you’ll find that 9 times out of 10 the answer is yes. Secondly, never suggest a counter-offer that’s so low it offends the merchant. Rachel Jones writes about her rule of thumb when bargaining in India. She suggests that if someone quotes you a price of 1000 rupees to counter-offer 400 or so. However, if you are quoted a price and you offer something outrageously low (say, 200 rupees) the merchant might be offended and refuse to sell you anything at all.
- Buy One Get One– One of my favorite market bartering strategies is to request a special price for multiple items. Generally, I will begin by negotiating down the price of an item. Let’s say I’m eyeing a scarf. If the merchant originally requests 400 rupees, I might offer 200. If he says 300, I would then say, “how about 450 for 2 scarves?” This strategy is particularly effective because it puts a respectful amount of money in the merchant’s pocket while getting you a price which is almost as good as the one you initially started with.
- Round Down– You know your negotiation is nearing conclusion when the merchant offers to meet you in the middle. For example: you find a tunic for 1000 rupees. You start bargaining with the seller. By the end of the negotiation, the final offer is 650. My favorite trick is to insist on paying the (lower), even number. This is most easily done by stating that you don’t have change and would not like to break a larger bill. Trust me, those 50 piece savings add up over time. If you use this trick on 4 separate deals, you will have 200 extra bills to purchase something extra!
- Be Confident– There’s no spoil-proof way of avoiding the attention you receive as a foreigner. However, confidence is key when haggling in the marketplace. If someone tells you that something is hand-embroidered (and you know it is not) call them on their bluff. If a merchant lies and says that something is one-of-a-kind gently inform him that you saw the same product 4 stalls over– then tell him the competitor’s price (and don’t be afraid to make one up). When the merchant sees that you are an intuitive, confident buyer he will treat you with fairness and respect.
- Use your Prior Purchases as Leverage for Future Purchases– As you shop you will gain a better understanding of market value. If you purchased a dress from one vendor and later see another that you like, use your previous price as leverage with the second merchant. If the second garment is more intricate than the first, then offer him a slightly higher price out of respect. If the second garment is more simple than the first, then show him your previous find and offer a comparatively lower price. This will demonstrate to the seller that you know and understand the product value and cannot be fooled into overpaying. Chances are, the merchant will be impressed by the prices you negotiated with his peers and yield to your request.
- Stay Focused– When you begin negotiations with a merchant, they will almost always show you a cheaper version and offer it to you for that price. The substitute product is often very bad quality and a poor comparison. If this happens, make it very clear that you are not interested in any other product than the one you initially saw. This will signal to the merchant that if they want your business they must sell you what you initially came for.
- Hustle Independently then Pass it On– If you are shopping with a friend, settle prices one at a time. If your friend negotiates a great deal with a shopkeeper, then he will be cornered into giving you a comparable product for the same price. Similarly, you might consider negotiating a group deal with the shop keeper. If he agrees to give your friend 2 scarves for 450 rupees, then he is likely to agree to sell 4 scarves for 750 rupees. The larger the order, the more likely the merchant is to lower the price. It’s like a wholesale transaction.
- Brick Wall? Walk Away– Trust me, if you walk away from a negotiation, the merchant is very likely to chase you down. If you do choose to return to the bargaining table, offer them a slightly higher price and stick to it like glue. If they didn’t want your business they wouldn’t have called you back.