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How to Haggle without Being a Jerk

Everyone knows how to haggle, right? It’s like war, but fought with currency.

You barrel into a store, in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, say; sneer at the vendor’s opening gambit; riposte with something like 5% of that figure; parry all of the weak and transparent “finest quality,” “local price,” and “family of eight” haymakers; slowly but surely batter your enemy into submission; and finally emerge, exhausted but victorious, with a mother-of-pearl-inlaid backgammon set that you’ll never use because you don’t know how to play backgammon. But who cares? You won!

Well, no. Haggling is not war; in fact, it’s not even really a competition. Neither party is under any obligation to buy or sell, so thinking in terms of winners and losers misses the point. Haggling is more like a formalized dance, a way to arrive at a price that is acceptable to both buyer and seller. That’s not to say that no vendor will ever try to take advantage of you; they certainly will. But your attitude to the dance plays a large role in determining how pleasant it is, and how it resolves.

So, when you’re exploring the world’s best markets, here’s how to haggle without being a huge jerk.

1. Decide how much the item is worth to you

Really, this is the only thing that matters. Sure, it’s best if you can research the going rate in advance—by checking with locals, scoping out fixed-price stores, eavesdropping on other shoppers, or simply asking around and trying to triangulate the answers—but only you can put a dollar value on how much you want that cute backgammon set. Decide on a target price, and on an upper maximum.

2. Forget the rule book

“Take 5% of the asking price, multiply it by the vendor’s number of children and divide by how many sales they have made today, then adjust for bushiness of eyebrows…” Sorry, but there are no hard and fast rules in Haggle Club. The vendor is going to size you up in an instant—appearance, age, nationality—and base their opening price on that. This may be ludicrously high, or relatively low. As well as on you, it also depends on the item type, and where you are. I found vendors in Egypt, for example, would often chance their luck, whereas in Jordan the opening price was often closer to what it “should” be.

You need to be similarly fluid if you want to learn how to haggle. Since you know your ideal price, you can counter based on that, rather than on the initial ask. Go with a figure below your target—not so high that you have no wiggle room, but not so low that you risk giving offense. Be prepared to reformulate your numbers if you feel you’ve misjudged.

Saphan Phut Night Market, Bangkok

3. Drink the tea

Smart vendors may do a bunch of stuff to put you at your ease and keep you in the store longer—ever wondered why the mint tea served in Marrakesh carpet shops is so scalding? Accept the tea; engage in conversation about your families; enjoy the banter. Keeping it friendly and lighthearted benefits you just as much as the seller, provided you keep your wits about you.

Remember: You’re trying to agree on some middle ground, and people are far more open to negotiating with someone who’s pleasant and responsive. In other words, while you are trying to reduce the price of the item to somewhere close to your target, the aim is to avoid that process feeling adversarial. That’s when you really learn how to haggle.

If you can build up a rapport with the vendor, you’re more likely to have success with plays like pointing out flaws in the product, or getting a multiple-purchase discount, or asking if you can have the product for a certain price if you can say the number in their language.

4. Don’t say a price and then not honor it

This is an etiquette thing. No one is going to lock you up for reneging on an offer, but it’s kind of a douche move. And it happens more than you might expect. When I was tour leading in Egypt, I saw a lot of people who didn’t want an item back themselves into a corner: They offered a price they felt sure the vendor wouldn’t accept, rather than just saying no, only to have the vendor pounce. Don’t say it unless you mean it!

Bedouin textiles, Dubai

5. How to haggle without burning your bridges

If you don’t want something at the price you land on, it’s ok to walk away—no matter how much tea you’ve drunk or how close you now feel to the vendor’s family. In fact, walking away is a good last-ditch gambit for lowering the price. But be prepared for the seller to call your bluff and let you go. And if you return later, having failed to secure the item elsewhere, don’t be surprised if the price has now gone up a bit—especially if you hadn’t been playing nice.

Similarly, be careful about claiming someone else in the market has offered you the item at a lower price. It’s a perfectly legit move, but could easily backfire if the vendor decides to dig in.

6. Don’t pinch pennies

If you find yourself battling it out over the equivalent of a couple of dollars, check yourself. Chances are you are richer and more privileged than the person you are trying to buy from, so stop and think about where this money is going and what it might mean. This can be a thorny issue. I’m not saying you should set out to pay over the odds for something, or that you should pay $25 for an item that’s worth $10 just because it would cost $25 at home (or because you’re on vacation, or whatever), but if you’re talking a buck or two here and there, let it go. Stop trying to “win.”

7. Don’t compare yourself to others

If you discover someone has bought the same selfie stick as you, but at half the price, who cares? Leaving aside the fact that you just deliberately acquired a selfie stick, as long as you were happy with the price you paid when you bought it, that’s all that matters.

Repeat after me: It’s. Not. A. Competition.

Photo 1: Anton Zelenov/Wikimedia Commons; 2: istolethetv/Flickr; 3: Lara Dunston.