The Art of Bargaining – The Survival Skill Series

In many countries, including the one I grew up in, bargaining (or haggling) is simply a fact of life. Visitors who are not used to the idea might find the whole process uncomfortable in the very least and stressful at the most. And if the price being negotiated is a mere “pocket change” in whatever countries they’re from, there’s also an added sense of… guilt?

Luang Prabang Night Market, Laos -- by Lorna87, Flickr

If that’s guilt you’re feeling, consider that in places where haggling is the norm, both locals and tourists are expected NOT to take the first price offered. As a matter of fact, buying an item at the opening price — which could be as high as 10x of what it’s worth — can be seen as flaunting your economic prowess. Or worse, it can be misconstrued as a form of charity. And no self-respecting merchants like to be pitied upon. They’re business people!

To be successful and to actually enjoy the whole process requires patience and a good sense of humor. A flair for the theatrics would come in handy as well… But even if you don’t think you have any of the above, don’t despair… these tips might still come in handy:

Timing is everything

In asian countries with significant Chinese population, take advantage of the auspicious belief among store owners that your morning sets the tone for the rest of the day. In Indonesian the word “penglaris” loosely translates at “the one that will bring the other shoppers in.” Because of this merchants will be more willing to cut their price on their first customer — so get there as early as humanely can.

If getting up early is not your idea of vacation, come by an hour before closing time. With the business day coming to an end, again they’ll be more willing to lower the price more.

When you first enter the market, take a walk around taking note of what’s available for sale, what items you’re interested in and how common they are. The more stalls selling the same item, the more bargaining power you have because you can simply walk away if the negotiation seems to have stalled. When other shop owners see you walking away from an item that they themselves are selling, they will try to get you an even lower price than what you walked away from.

“There’s nothing wrong with starting a bidding war between neighboring stalls by commenting offhandedly that “another stall was willing to go Rp. 50000 cheaper…”

Know Your Price

Knowing what an item is worth to you can provide you with a good starting price. Ask yourself, “what is the maximum price I’m willing to pay for this thing?” Then make your first counter offer lower than that.

Mysore market -- By admanchester, Flickr

How low?
Well, If you’re only so-so interested in an item, or you know that it’s available from other stores, you can probably afford to begin much lower than what you think it’s worth. That way even if you don’t end up getting it, you’re not going to beat yourself up too hard over it… or simply move on to the next stall.

Whatever your level of interest is, always start lower than the whatever you think it’s worth.

Lights! Camera! Action!

The basic
Do not act too interested in it. It might seem obvious and sounds so simple, but it’s also the easiest to forget. I’ve definitely been guilty of it. It’s hard to contain your excitement when you see just the perfect thing you’ve been looking for, but squealing in excitement over an item will definitely give way too much of an upper hand to the merchant.

The more you make you can sell the idea that it’s something that you can definitely live without, the better.

Don’t pick up or ask for the item of interest right away. Ask about a different one… dismiss it right away pretending that the starting price for that is too high to even bother haggling for, and only then ask about the object of interest.

First act extremely shocked and offended at whatever the price they mention. You can even try to laugh at it (not rudely of course, but in a ‘you’ve got to be kidding me‘ kind of tone).

Then give a counteroffer, which they’ll then counter…

Again, act shocked and slightly offended at how still ridiculously high the counter-counteroffer price is.

Actually, might as well keep the same shocked expression during the ensuing back and forth until the price gets close to what you have in mind… In the meanwhile, act a little impatience, OR if you have a buddy, have him act as if he’s losing patience and trying to get you to keep going. The extra pressure might get the store owner not to drag out the negotiation too long in case he might lose you as a customer altogether.

-- by Tom (hmm a rosa tint), Flickr

That extra nudge…
Investigate the item carefully, pointing out the slightest imperfections to the shop owner. If you see something else you might be interested in, ask if he can throw that in as well for a discounted price for both. What if you buy more then one? You can even mention random things like, “It’s going to rain, there aren’t going to be many shoppers coming by…” or keep repeating “It’s too much… it’s too much” in the local language.

In general, if you can make them laugh or taken a liking of you… to start seeing you as more than just another random tourist, the more enjoyable the whole process will be for both parties. And the more likely they’ll be more willing to go lower on the price.

The final (optional) nudge…
When you think the negotiation is going well and you’re this close in coming into agreement but not as close as you’d like, pretend to give up and walk away… The owner might try to call you back by lowering his last offered price just a little more…

Often times this signifies the lowest price, or pretty darn close to the lowest price they’re willing to let go of the item.

What if they don’t call you back?
No worries, there’s nothing wrong about going back later on and re-visit the negotiation starting at whatever price you guys leave off. There’s always a chance though that the items is no longer available. So be sure that when you walk away, you’re already in the mind set that “Yes, I can live without it”.

Having said that…

Just like any sports, having to do this over and over again will get tiring real quick. Sometimes you just want to buy something without having to play some sort of mind game… That the 2 dollar difference is not worth the hassle.

And that’s completely fine too. Leave the more expensive items to haggle over when you have the energy… for the cheap-o stuff, sometimes it IS too much of a hassle.

But I do hope that you’ll see that bargaining can be as much of a game as well as a sport, played and enjoyed by many. And you can play it too! And with some practice, it could be something that you end up enjoying as well.

Happy bargaining!

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