How to Haggle When You're Shopping Abroad -- or Anywhere, Really
In some places in the world, shopping is defined by price tags. You see a listed price you’re willing to pay, and buy that item. In others part of the globe, bargaining is the rule of the land. You haggle, debate, and maybe quarrel with a shopkeeper until you’re both satisfied on an agreed price. In a place where you’re trying to make your dollars last, it’s just best practice. Seems simple enough, right? Well, it’s taken me years of travels to really hone my bargaining skills. And more than a few times paid more than I probably should’ve. Learn from my mistakes -- and have some fun as you go. Keep the haggling convivial, and there’s a chance you come out of a bargaining session with a new shopkeeper friend.
Don't start bargaining until you've compared prices
You’ll be tempted to take what’s in front of you. But in most cases, whatever catches your eye is available in other shops. You’ll almost surely pay too much if you’re in a hurry.
Do: Comparison shop. When I visited Chiang Mai, Thailand, I saw a striped bluish gray linen dress at a Saturday market clothing stall that I haggled on, eventually talking the shopkeeper down to about $5.50 from $8. As I packed the dress into my backpack, I looked across from me and saw the same bluish gray dress at another vendor -- for $4. As I wandered the market, I kept seeing the same bluish gray dress everywhere, for $15 to $3, all of the same quality.
Investigation might take a little time, but the payoff is tremendous. If you can, bring a willing, local friend. They might speak the language, have connections, know the right amount you should be paying for an item, and know the best places to window shop. If you don’t have a local friend, the Internet can be one, too. You can look up on old forums the best times to buy and the types of prices you can reasonably get. For example, the mornings are slow downtimes for business owners, so they might be itching for a sale. Plan accordingly.
Don't forget the power of basic kindness
Going straight into the transaction is probably instinct for most of us. We see what we want. We buy it. We leave.
Do: Be friendly to shopkeepers -- ask them about their day, build some trust in the business relationship. Shopkeepers are trying to make a living, sure, but they’re also just people. Chat in the local language, even a little, and smile.
If I’m in a town for just a few days or hours, I’ve had shopkeepers give my friends and me discounts when I revisit their shop or offer tea because I took the time to start a conversation beyond business. While visiting Pokhara, Nepal, I struck a conversation with a jewelry dealer. As I perused his store, we chatted about US politics, the weather, family, and our favorite Nepali foods. I bought a silver bell-shaped earring, and he offered me tea, which I obliged. The next time I visited, he remembered me and a discount to my visiting relative.
Don't forget to ask if there's a price tag
So at this point, you’ve done your research, consulted with a friend, and already engaged in a hopefully pleasant conversation with the shop attendant. Now, my friends, it’s time to ask the important question: How much?
Do: Pop that tag. Some shops or taxi stands have listed prices, and if you don’t check, you might start your haggling too high. At that point, there’s no turning back. Once, exhausted from a work trip in Nepal, I once tried to bargain a taxi from the Kathmandu airport to my house 15 minutes away without realizing the system had fixed rates. I ended up paying $10 when the fixed price was $8.
Also, some people are offended if you try to bargain down an existing price tag. Imagine walking into a grocery story and telling the cashier “I know the price for Cheerios is $3, but I’d rather pay $1.50.” C’mon.
Don't tell the shopkeeper your desired price
That’s like revealing your hand early in poker. I understand the feeling, but hold it off. When I’ve told a taxi driver my ideal range, they shoot higher. Even if a shopkeeper agrees to your desired price, you can finagle lower within reason.
Do: Provide an asking price lower than your ideal range. The goal is to negotiate up to your range, not down. To accomplish this, ask around two-thirds or three-quarters below your ideal price. (That is, offer $30 for something you’d be willing to pay $100 for.) Don’t be shocked if the shopkeeper is aghast. It’s all part of the game. It also gives you enough space to haggle within or below your price range.
Don't feel obliged to buy anything
So the shopkeeper isn’t budging. You’ve lowballed on the opening gambit, but they aren’t having it. You’ll feel to urge to quit, and leave the bazaar. Again, hold off. You’ve heard it before, but in all cases, patience is key.
Do: Keep walking if the price simply isn’t right. You may catch the attention of a nearby shopkeeper who’s more willing to deal.
When I visited Central Market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I learned from a friend who grew up in the city that I should pay roughly $9 for a decent Batik silk scarf, so that’s what I offered an upbeat 20-something man at a shop. He insisted I pay nearly double that so, I went to a neighboring vendor, who offered me an identical yellow Batik scarf for $8. Annoyed, the first young man offered me the scarf for $7. The competing vendor saw me wavering and dropped his price to $6.
Reader, I bought the $6 scarf. But in the case you aren’t offered on-spot offers, you can always just leave. At the sight of your back, a shopkeeper may lower the price. If not, at least you’ll be heading toward a better sale.