Perusing a night market overseas is a must for any traveller, young or old. They help pass time of an evening and provide all the souvenirs you need to keep pesky family members at bay when you finally return home. Even better is that every city and town will have one worth a look. Perfect.
What I find difficult is the art of haggling.
What are items worth? What does the stall owner think its worth? Why do all the other stalls have one? Am I being offensive if I barter? Am I a sucker if I don’t? Is it supposed to be broken?
My natural response is to trust a person and pay the price they tell me. I detest confrontation at all costs and haggling comes across more like an accusation rather than a natural process. Why would I ask the price of an item, and then turn around and tell the shopkeeper that he is mentally unstable charging that amount? If I owned a stall and someone attempted to talk me down, I would be inclined to launch into an impassioned speech about the quality of my work and that any discount would be like taking food from my mouth. My inner conflict, however, is more directed towards the fact that I’m arguing over what equates to, in Australian money, a few cents. I wouldn’t argue about taking 10 cents off back home, would I?
That being said, in my experience there are two common tactics that work when haggling overseas; the ‘back and forth’ and the ‘walk away’. Both are scientifically proven to be successful and suit people with the most guilty of consciences.
The “Back and Forth’
This theory requires persistent banter between both parties- straight into it, so to speak. Gradually increase your price until they relent or tell you to go away.
My very first ‘haggle’ at a night market in Chiang Mai, Thailand, used this approach. I was haggling with a middle aged woman over the price of a bracelet. Her asking price was 50 baht (approximately $1.96). Ridiculously overpriced. I saw my opportunity to get a bargain, so the bartering began.
“25 baht?” Half price, typical starting point for us hagglers.
“No. 50 baht.” She was playing hardball. I’m not going to lie; I was both impressed and intimidated.
“30 baht.” Safe, slow rises. I didn’t want to play my hand before the call.
“No. 50 baht.” Holding firm. I was beginning to doubt my strategy.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Very sure. 50 baht.” I was beginning to think this lady was a robot. No human could be so emotionless.
“40?” Desperation was edging into my voice, like a teenager who’s lost their phone.
“50.” She had no soul. I was haggling my heart out and she wasn’t budging. Clearly the haggling scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian was a lie, not that basing your bartering skills on slapstick comedy from the 70’s was ever going to be a solid bargaining technique. I was starting to think nobody haggled around these parts.
“45. Please.” I was pathetic. I had ceased haggling; this was begging.
She thought for a minute. “OK, 45.”
Victory was mine. I like to think she relented, that my persistent badgering had prevailed. In reality, she rolled her eyes and agreed merely to shut me up. I had won via submission.
I handed her a 50 baht note and held my hand out for my hard earned change. She stared me down, contempt written all over on her face. I don’t blame her; I had just talked her down from 50 to 45 baht and didn’t even have the correct money on me. She flung the coin at me in disgust as I walked away with a triumphant strut. As I put my new hippy bracelet on and reminisced about my first barter victory, it occurred to me that I had saved the equivalent of 20 cents, for an item that only cost $1.98 to begin with.
My bracelet broke later that night. Well played bracelet lady, well played.
The “Walk Away”
This involves showing complete disgust at the asking price and walking off. It will work a treat if the item is “expensive”.
In Nepal, my partner and I were walking the streets of a town square. We were eyeing off what’s called a singing bowl. It sits in your hand and makes a high pitched hum as you run a stick around the rim (NOTE: ‘stick’ is not the technical term, but using the word ‘rod’ seemed inappropriate). This is supposed to be relaxing, apparently.
We walked past a table full of these gadgets, not to mention, clothing, jewellery and massive Ghurkha knives that make machetes look like children’s toys.
“Look, you buy singing bowl. See, it plays beautifully. Here you try,” and a small man thrust a bowl into my hands. “Play. Play.”
“OK, I’ll bite. How much?”
I laughed, handed him the bowl and with my hands in the air, began walking away.
“OK, 4000.” We had just dropped 3000 rupees in the space of two steps. My thoughts were that if the price doesn’t come down straight away, it never will. But, if the price changes immediately, you can go a whole heap lower. Safe to say, he had my attention.
When in this situation the key is to contemplate the offer and walk anyway. In this case, I turned to my partner, pretended to discuss the offer, shrugged and continued walking.
“OK! 2500.” Boom. Now we’re talking shop!
The funny part wasn’t that the price had dropped from 7000 to 2000 before you could turn your head and cough; it was that he then wanted to sell me a second one while his friend kept insisting I buy a knife. As I explained that my need for cheap gifts and gigantic knives were taken care of, all they said was, “Next time”. I didn’t know if that was a proposition or a threat.
Haggling is a theory of mistrust. The vendor is trying to trick you and you’re trying to fool them in return. They are never trying to give you a good deal and you are never trying to help them out. In reality, the quality of most souvenirs in overseas markets is fairly average, but if you’re willing to play the game, you can have some fun with it. At the end of the day, the story will almost certainly be better than the purchase, no matter how good that ‘deal’ is.
Wayward Tip: have a crack. The ‘I can’t be stuffed’ approach will lead to you paying massive overs for things not worth much to begin with.