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I’ve been fortunate to live in and travel to Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Central and South American, Asian, and Pacific Rim countries where bargaining is the norm. In fact, if you don’t bargain at markets and open-air souks, locals will probably assume you’re unfamiliar with the rules of the game.
So let’s dispute each of the fears associated with bargaining and go over the most important things you need to know, as a large chunk of the world understands them.
First, it is a game. Shopping is not a life-or-death issue (unless you’re shopping for a midwife or a surgeon or a casket). Like most games, you make a move, your opponent makes a move, repeat and repeat until the bargaining is over, and the item is either purchased or left behind. And, like many games, it can actually be a lot of fun. Don’t make it a serious thing. It’s just a seller and a buyer, and the latter is you.
Rule #1: Don’t Be Afraid
Bargaining is a form of social interaction. Two people meet each other, exchange pleasantries, and find a middle ground for making a sale. The talk and the food and drink you might be offered are all part of the social ritual. Enjoy it. Sip the tea. Discuss life. Then shop.
When you’ve found something you want to purchase, make a bid. If you’re worried about insulting the seller, keep in mind that it would take a lot more than a lowball offer to do that. Trust me when I tell you that merchants in bargain-friendly countries are extremely good at what they do, and a low offer means one thing: The game is on.
For many merchants, selling is their livelihood, so when you make an offer it opens the door for a sales possibility. If you walk away with no bid, there’s no possibility at all.
Rule #2: Be Honest and Polite
Often, especially in a market or souk, vendors will invite you into their shops or stalls. "Pour le plaisir des yeux," they may say, if the local language is French, which translates to "for the pleasure of your eyes." It means you can just come in and look around and enjoy everything with no obligation to buy. If you feel pressured, politely remind the seller that you were invited in just to look around. He or she will most likely appreciate your gentle frankness, smile, and reassure you that you’re welcome to browse.
When in doubt of whether or not it’s okay to bargain, just ask. Try something like this: "Is it okay if I offer you the price I can afford?" Or, simply: "Can I offer you a lower price?"
You obviously don’t want to say "You must be nuts to ask for that price," or "I can find better quality back home." Be polite, always. Bargaining is not a disrespectful act. If for some reason the vendor doesn’t want to bargain, he or she will tell you so. Respect that, and either pay the asking price or walk away.
Keep in mind that it costs you nothing to tell the seller her work is lovely and that you appreciate her skill. It’s never impolite to ask questions, and it’s much appreciated when you show interest.
Rule #3: Control Your Eyeballs
If you fall in love with something, keep your eyes to yourself. If you keep staring at that carpet or tea set or caftan, and if you stop focusing when the seller moves on to other items, you’ve lost the game. It signals to the seller that you must have the item, and you’ll be willing to pay a special price for it — one that might be higher than you should.
Once you find something you adore, force yourself to move onto other things, or leave the room, or go to another area of the shop. Don’t keep looking back at the thing you want to buy. You already know what it looks like. Unglue your eyes. Feign interest in other things. This signals that you can take it or leave it, which is exactly the impression you want to give.
Rule #4: Let Your Feet — or Handwriting — Do the Talking
Let’s say you want a blouse and an embroidered bag. You make an offer. The shop owner counters with a much higher offer. You ask him if he can do better, and he shakes his head no. You say it’s too expensive for you, and you mean what you say. Then, you thank him and walk away. Don’t look back; there’s a good chance he’ll run after you and meet your price.
If he doesn’t, keep walking and assume you’ll see the same thing at another shop. But if you have non-buyer’s remorse, go back, make the vendor a final offer, and pay. It’s not about eating humble pie. It means he thinks he can get the last price he asked for, and you agree to pay it, knowing that you can’t win ‘em all, but at least you tried.
As for the language barrier, there’s usually a way to get around it. Many merchants will speak your language, especially if it is English, and if they don’t, they may ask someone nearby — another merchant, or someone who’s learning English in school — to translate. But there is an international language of buying and selling, and it’s called hand gestures and writing. In Iran, I bought a handmade silver Zoroastrian pendant by writing my offer on an iPad. Then the owner of the shop wrote his offer. I wrote. He wrote. I wrote. He wrote. Then we shook hands and he wrapped up the sale.
Rule #5: Never Say No
If you’re with a friend or partner who is bargaining with a seller, never contradict the friend. If she frowns and says to the vendor, "I don’t think this can be machine washed," don’t correct her and say, "I’m sure it can be." She is in bargaining mode, and you have to be supportive, even if you (secretly) disagree.
Rule # 6: No Grinding
If you're close to a deal and there’s been some serious ongoing bargaining where the vendor has almost come down to your price, you don’t want to keep going on and on, grinding a seller into the ground for a few bucks. It’s not fair play. Make sure you get a good price, but let the final feeling be win-win.
Rule #7: Walk Away With a Good Story
If you’re proud of the deal you snagged, you’ll probably have a good story to tell when you’re home. A few years back, my husband and were part of a small group tour of Turkey. We went into a carpet shop, and not one person on the tour was interested in carpets. But Turkish rug salesmen are geniuses at what they do: They feed you, they teach you about carpets and what to look for, and within five minutes, you feel like an expert. By the time they were done, every person on the trip was ready to buy more than one.
One couple with us was as dear as they were inexperienced. When the salesman quoted them $2,000 for a rug, they were immediately ready to pay. "Don’t stare at the carpet," I whispered to them (remember, staring directly at an item for too long is a sign that you’ll buy no matter what the price).
But their telltale orbs were glued to the rug, so I quickly ushered them out of the room and locked them in a bathroom (yes, really). Then I went back to the vendor and confidently proclaimed: "I’m going to write how much they can afford. If you agree, you’ll make a sale for a fair price. If you don’t agree, that’s okay. But they won’t have a carpet and you won’t have a sale. Deal?" He looked, and we shook on it.
I freed the couple from the bathroom. "How much?" they asked. "Did you get it for $1,800? $1,500?"
With mock disappointment, I said, "Nope. The best he would do was $800."
Rule #8: Remember That Everyone Wants the Same Thing
What does everyone want? The answer is as universal as it is simple: a good deal. And if the vendor gives you a really good price, you’re more likely to buy. He knows that. You know that. It’s a happy ending to that story.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist, author, speaker, and workshop leader who sometimes takes people on exotic trips that include bargaining. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us.