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How to Master the Art of Haggling
Bargaining tips, even if you're the shy and retiring type

Does your stomach flip-flop when the issue of haggling comes up?

Would you rather pay twice as much than have to discuss prices with a shop owner or market seller?

Bargaining isn't for the faint-hearted, and for some reason women don't try it as often as men.

If you're tired of being shy or if you're plain scared of haggling, it may be because you don't know how to do it.

But like many social skills - and it is a social skill - the art of haggling can be learned.

Trinkets on sale at Istanbul Grand BazaarTrinkets, like these at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, are great for haggling. Quantity is important: if you buy several items, the unit price should be lower than if you only buy one.

Now, haggling is really quite basic, and I'll walk you through every step. (If you're impatient, click here to go straight to The Art of Haggling 101).

I do have a distinct advantage in the haggling arena: I was born into a Mediterranean family in which bargaining was always worth a try. Even in the poshest shop, my father would smile broadly at the salesperson and ask for a discount. (I promptly ducked behind a rack in embarrassment.)

And to my surprise and mortification, it often worked! Over the years I saw him get upgrades on flights, discounts on designer goods, and free drinks in restaurants.

I don't go as far, but I'm not averse to asking a shop whether this is their best price (and it often isn't). At the garden shop the other day, I bought an armload of plants and asked if there was a discount for quantity. The clerk looked at me strangely, then smiled broadly: "5% for you." A garden shop in France!

Blackjack game: upping the anteImagine trying to up the ante in this Costa Brava casino by smiling and asking, "Come on, please, just one little Ace?" No. In this case, what you see is what you get
Public transportation mosaic in MadridPublic transportation is another place you can't bargain. In most countries, buses and trains have fixed prices, although prices of taxis and minibuses can sometimes be brought down.

WHEN BEING FOREIGN HURTS: Don't get angry if the 'local price' is cheaper than the 'tourist price'. In countries where bargaining is the norm, the average person is poorer than you are. You're looking for a trinket; she's trying to feed her family. The pennies you save might pay for a week's meals for her family. Admittedly it is irksome but if you feel that strongly about it, make a few connections and take someone local along. 

The Art of Haggling 101

Haggling and bargaining are fine arts of travel, but like many age-old customs, they are governed by unwritten laws.

To me, the most important one is to be honorable: once you start bargaining and make an offer, honor it. Don't start bargaining if you're not planning on buying.

And now, follow these steps and you'll easily pass for a born bargainer!

  • First, make sure the art of haggling is indeed a local custom. There's no point in trying to lower the price at a Swiss watchmaker or at Wal-Mart.
  • Determine your strategy before you start. Will you demean the item? Tell the merchant it's not worth the money she's asking? Or will you plead poverty? Perhaps you'll feign disinterest? It's best to have a basic plan before you plunge. 
  • Do your research first. Ask people the value of a certain object - ask your hotel clerk, other travelers, the waiter in your restaurant. Anyone who speaks your language.
  • Set an approximate price in your mind. If you've been able to find out from a local, great. If not, still set a hypothetical price. There is no set rule for this but I usually assume the price I'm first quoted is about 50-75% too high, and I'll offer a quarter of the asking price. If someone quotes me $100, I'll assume the real price is more around $50 so I'll start by offering $25. 
  • Put that amount - and no more - in your pocket. That way, when you pull it out to say it's all you have to spend, you'll be telling the truth. 
  • Practice or role play with a friend. If you're a Westerner, there's every chance you won't be used to bargaining. (If you're from Asia, Africa or Latin America, the opposite will be true.) Test it out and pretend. It's like making a speech: it gets easier each time you rehearse.
  • Learn a few local words. A few helpful ones are: how much, too expensive, thank you, and no. When it comes to numbers, you can either write them down or tap them out on a calculator (not on an expensive smartphone if you happen to be in a crowded market or bazaar, please, or you may never see it again).
  • Walk around and look for similar items. Make sure you've spotted the best of the lot before you start bargaining. 
  • Spread your curiosity around. Ask the prices of two or three items. You'll be watched closely as you meander through the stall or shop. Any show of interest will raise the price. If you must point at something just to begin the bargaining process, do so carelessly. Appear bored or in a hurry. Don't hold an object in your hand any longer than you need to in order to begin the bidding. That said, gear up psychologically. You are about to face the gurus of haggling: they have worn down thousands of foreign shoppers before you.  
  • Ask for the price. Whatever the answer, look shocked, as though it is ridiculously high. (It probably is.)
  • Make your own offer (assuming you're honestly interested in buying)It should be far lower than the price you've researched. The vendor may look apoplectic: great! The bargaining has begun and a counter-offer should be around the corner. 
  • Beware your reaction. The seller is watching your every move and any counter-offer will rise in tandem with your apparent interest. The seller will now respond to your offer. Remember not to look interested. 
  • Go back and forth. This is the essence of bargaining. He will come down, you will go up, until you meet somewhere in the middle. You may pay a bit more than you wanted to, he may sell a little cheaper than he wanted to. But if you're both relatively satisfied, this will be a successful sale.
  • This is a good time to highlight some of the product's disadvantages - a stain or discoloration, hanging threads, mismatched colors, anything you can think of that makes this particular item less than perfect.  
  • Claim your power. If after several efforts the price is still too high but you're keen on the purchase, walk away. Chances are you're still in the game, and this may help clinch the deal.  
  • If you really cannot agree on a price, refuse and end the session. Be firm, say No, and leave. Not every bargaining session ends in a sale and if you can't agree on a price, there's no point in prolonging the agony.
art of haggling - Moroccan carpetsBargaining is an art and a science: there's a right and a wrong way to do it. And you can bargain for pretty much anything - not just for carpets or in markets. Photo Anne Sterck

Some final words of wisdom about haggling and bargaining

Now that we've looked at the building blocks of bargaining, here are some of the subtleties that come with it.

  • Courtesy lies at the heart of most bargaining. Aggression, arrogance or anger will usually be counterproductive so please, leave your frustration outside. 
  • Don't start haggling unless you are truly interested in buying; Western-style comparison shopping is not the norm everywhere.
  • If you're not planning to buy, say so. Tell the vendor you'll be back another day and that you're just looking. It won't stop her from trying to sell, but at least you'll have a clear conscience as you walk away.
  • In some countries you'll be offered tea, coffee or sweets during haggling. This is intended to lull you into buying, but stick to your guns. It's a normal part of bargaining and you're under no obligation to buy as a result - no matter how pushy the seller gets.
  • If you're brought to a shop or stall by an 'interested' third party, like a driver or guide, the final price will be more expensive. Your middleman will be getting a cut.
  • Prepare to be pressured. Plenty of tactics will be brought to bear on you. You'll be told it costs nothing to look, but once you're in the shop the hard-sell begins. Stay in control and remember, as long as you haven't made an offer, you don't have to buy.
  • Try not to look too wealthy. No merchant will believe your woeful tales of poverty if you're dripping with the very latest bling or gear.
  • If you really can't handle it alone, take a friend. It's harder to convince two people, and a friend will keep you from going overboard if you get too caught up in the haggling game. You can use the carrot and stick - you look interested while she tries to drag you away. 
  • Leave your guilt aside - especially when hearing about starving relatives or expensive merchandise. They are simply part of the art of haggling.
  • If a seller refuses to negotiate, her price may already be acceptable.
  • If you buy several articles, the unit price should go down. (Remember my garden store plants?)
  • If you feel you're really being taken for a ride or if a vendor becomes abusive, leave. You're there to carry out a transaction, not to be insulted.
  • All's fair in love and shopping. Expect to be lied to. That is NOT an original Vuitton or Rolex - or even real leather, for that matter.
  • If you really don't think you can handle it on your own, try taking a professional with you, like I did one time in Istanbul.
  • Be ready to walk away before you even walk in the door. You must be convincing about this - most deals happen when you're halfway out the door.
  • Most government-run shops have fixed prices: don't bother bargaining. The same usually goes for supermarkets, bottles of alcohol, or public transportation.
  • And finally, haggling is a smiling and pleasant activity, so leave that attitude at the door and get ready for some jousting.
  • Being a woman often doesn't help. You may be considered an easier sell, especially if you're by yourself. Don't give anyone that satisfaction.

Whatever you do, don't try to take away all the seller's profit. Stall-owners are sometimes badgered so aggressively by tourists that they scale back their prices unacceptably, even parting with an item at cost. Remember, they have to make a living, while all you may be trying to do is save 5 cents. Please keep things in perspective.  

Silks for sale in IstanbulOne last thing: courtesy is always important when you haggle. While vendors might get upset or angry, I've seen equally bad, even insulting behaviour on the part of foreigners.
art of haggling - reaching an agreementGo ahead and try to get a good price - but not at any price.

WOMEN PLEASE NOTE: As women we interact differently so try to find shops where women are selling. Otherwise, if you're young or attractive, there may be undertones, or your openness and eye contact may be misconstrued. As a woman, in some societies, you might be taken less seriously. Finally, some women are brought up to be more deferential and will buy at a higher price to avoid any kind of confrontation. Sellers know this.

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