Bartering 101

While bartering for prices isn't commonly practiced in The States and most parts of Europe, it's the primary means of shopping in most other parts of the world. Particularly in areas of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, bartering is the norm. It's not just a way to get a lower price, it's a social custom that many people find enjoyment in.
Prior to living in Egypt, I'd never experienced bartering, and was slightly terrified of the practice.

You mean I have to ask for a lower price? What if they need that money? What if I offend them? What if they get mad at me?
All reasonable questions, though I wasn't taking into consideration the cultural history of bartering. The process of discussing prices has been around since there have been things to sell and trade. Though to an outsider of the practice, it sounds difficult, frightening, and unnecessary. 

I quickly learned to love bartering, after having a brief course in the practice with my pro-bartering boyfriend, Phil. Here's why bartering is awesome:
1. You can get a better deal (without ripping the seller off)
2. You can practice your language skills, if desired.
3. It's an entertaining way to make friends with locals.
4. You engage with the culture more.

Now, bartering is one of my favorite aspects of shopping in foreign markets. But it's useful for more than that; bartering comes in handy for trying to get a taxi and even when you're looking to go grocery shopping/out to eat.

Never done it? Here's what you need to know to be a pro-barterer

1. Know the value of what you're shopping for. Before you can start bartering on a price, you need to know how much it is worth! If you have no clue what the running price is for an item, it will be difficult to determine if the offer you've been given is fair or not. Ask locals prior to arriving at the market what average prices for different items are, or look them up online. For example, I found out that pashmina scarves go for 20-50 EGP, so I knew I needed to be in that price range before settling on a total cost.  Always ask about prices before getting to the market, otherwise the 'average' you're given is likely to be inflated.

2. Always ask for 25% of your first offer. A typical bartering session works like this: you're offered a high price, you return with a very low price, and you continue bartering till you meet somewhere in the middle, ideally in the average price range. For the most part, it's good for your starting counteroffer to be 25% of the original price. Now, this isn't always the case; for example, when I was in Egypt, I'd typically buy pashmina scarves as gifts. As previously mentioned, a quality scarf should run for 20-50EGP. However, the starting price I would be given would be close to 300 or 400EGP. Offering only 25% of that as my starting price puts the scarves at 75EGP, which is much higher than what they're worth. On the flip side, you may be given a fair offer right off the bat, and your counteroffer may not differ significantly from the original price. Use your judgment, but keep the 25% counteroffer as your basis. 

3. Don't set your heart on something. The sellers in foreign markets have been bartering their whole lives, and they'll know when they've caught a buyer. This happens when you've already set your heart on a particular item; you've fallen in love with it, and you can't leave without it. The seller will know this, and as a result, keep their prices very high. They know you'll be willing to pay above what it's worth, since you want that item so badly. In general, try not to fall in love with any items, and if you do, try not to show it.

4. Don't buy the first item you see. If you've ever been to a big tourist market, you'll know that most of the vendors sell the same (or very similar) products. Even if you find something truly one-of-a-kind, you should hold off on buying it right away. Why? Because chances are, you'll find the same thing at a better price, or something you love even more than the first item you chose, later on. Plus, by doing this you can pit sellers against each other in a little friendly competition. "Well, the seller a few blocks down offered me half that price..."

5. Wander the whole market, first. Just like how stores can buy prime locations in a shopping mall, vendors in markets know that placement near the entrance will get them more, faster buyers. At the beginning of the shopping trip, you'll have the most money, be the most excited, and least-likely to barter. This all equals to paying more money than you need to. Wait till you you've explored the whole area, or at least glanced through several booths, before committing to a purchase. You'll likely notice that you can get better deals further away from the entrance and in difficult-to-find areas. 

6. Don't be afraid to walk away. This is the absolute best bartering tip I have. If you're trying to barter a price down and the seller won't budge, just walk away. Why should you do this? Because it's likely that the seller is more interested in selling you their product, than in missing out on a sale altogether. If you walk away, they are potentially losing a sale, and they don't want to do that. 75% of the time, the seller will chase you down the street to offer a lower price. Even if you truly love the item and you can't live without it, it's better to walk away (even if it's fake). If they don't chase you, you can go back later and purchase it at the original price, assuming you didn't find something better/cheaper in a different shop. Only once have I had a seller not follow me after walking away from an item I truly wanted, and I had to go back at the end of the trip and buy it at his price. The ultimate walk of shame - ha!

7. Barter in the local language. I know this might sound terrifying, but hear me out. If you are attempting to acculturate yourself and show that you respect the local customs by trying to speak their language, you'll likely receive more respect from the vendors, and get better deals. Just learn a few words, such as 'yes', 'no', 'thank you', 'how much', and counting/numbers. You'll impress the vendor and they'll lower the price. There have been several occasions in which I've asked for the price of an item in English, but when I refuse in the local language, they drop the price much lower than they typically would. If nothing else, it's fun to try out your language skills in real-time with a local speaker. 

8. Have fun with it! Bartering is supposed to be enjoyable. If you're annoyed, rude, or otherwise not interested in the process, you're not going to get a good deal and you won't be having a good time. Understand that bartering, like any skill, is a learning process. You're going to get ripped off occasionally (it's only happened to me like 739 times), and you're going to miss out on awesome purchases. Take it all in stride. Also, no vendor is going to give a deal to someone who is treating them poorly. Just remember that you're shopping from a person, and you're only buying things. Enjoy yourself!

Here's a photo of myself with a vendor at the Khan-il Khalili in Cairo, who was impressed with my bartering (I wanted that scarf! It's my favorite to this day) and wanted a photo to document the experience. I mean, he never got the photo..haha, but he was fun to barter with! 

What are your best tips for bartering in foreign markets?

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  1. I always walk away at least once. Seriously though this is a great post, because I know culturally we feel and about leaving and bartering.

  2. #2 is a great rule! My friends and I only learned it by accident, when we were in line for a train and reading a guidebook out loud. We ended up amusing the Chinese-Canadian behind us, and he schooled us in negotiation. I was still pretty bad at it though. My tip would be: just remember that they're probably full of BS, because exaggerated reactions are part of the game! Also, in China, I had to bargain for tuktuk and taxi fares because they didn't use the meter - so set a price before you get in, or else things might get awkward.

  3. Thanks! And yes - they will always act like you've punched them after offering 25%, haha! And the taxi/tuktuk thing is important to note too. It was like that in Egypt and Jordan. Always important to note how much it costs for a taxi ride so you know what to ask for.

  4. ...The whole bartering thing seems SO nerve-wracking--you make it all sound so EASY!!...

  5. It really is! I was terrified of it at first, but with a bit of practice it's really quite simple!

  6. This is a great post, Taylor - I really enjoyed it! I wasn't very good at bartering in Morocco, but for some reason completely crushed it in China as I spoke Mandarin to the shopkeepers and they totally loved it. Amazing tips, I'll make note of them for my future travels :)

  7. Really great tips! In India I found it hard to haggle since it was little children doing the selling. Sometimes it's just so tough!

  8. Thanks, Sabina! Yes - I find that if you know the language, you get a lot further. I got awesome deals in Egypt/Jordan because I spoke Arabic, but I wasn't as fantastic in Guatemala because I didn't speak Spanish. Glad you liked it :)

  9. That's a good point! It's definitely difficult bartering with children, since they aren't as business-saavy as their adult counterparts. I'll have to come up with some good tips for those situations!

  10. And I'd add: Be careful--know the culture and don't always drive the hardest bargain you can. Too many westerners hear that they ought to bargain in "foreign" markets and don't realize that that does not mean in every market, all over the world. For example, my family has lived in Malaysia for 10 years--brand new expats or tourists come in and try to start bargaining in the grocery market. There--bargaining is simply not done in the grocery market. Everyone who's a local knows that. Word quickly spread about the tourist idiot who tried to get their apples cheaper than the set price and that's what easily determines their reputation permanently (because it's like a small town, everyone knows everyone and everyone talks about everyone!). They have no idea that in that culture, discounts are earned through relationships and loyalty--I can get my apples cheaper because the same lady has been selling my family apples since I was 13--she's always cutting special deals for us. But the stranger who just walked in and is trying to get a discount--no. That stranger hasn't demonstrated commitment to the community and, in their culture, doesn't "deserve" the insider's discount. SO, I'd just add to your very practical tips--don't assume that every situation is one where you should barter. Cultures vary widely all over the world and sometimes it's worth paying a higher price so that you don't get a bad reputation.

  11. This is a VERY good addition, and one that I'm glad you've mentioned. I'm a big fan of asking locals - friends, strangers, whathaveyou - about customs if you're unclear as to participation. It's always better to ask (even if you feel dumb) than to be culturally offensive or unaware. Thanks for the great advice!