I love bartering. I had my first taste when I was 8 years old on a trip to Malaysia. We were on the water front in Kutching and there was a toy that I desperately wanted. I can’t for the life of me remember what that toy was, but what I do remember was my Dad whispering prices in my ear whilst I attempted to haggle with this old Malay lady. I remember the thrill and pure elation in securing this toy ‘under budget’ and within my allowance. I was hooked.
Bartering is really something you need to practice, and pretty soon you’ll learn to barter like my ‘take-no-prisoners-don’t-back-down’ 8 year old self. Over the years, I have been know to cause adult tantrums (Bangkok 1996, Phuket 1998, Ubud 2010 and Seminyak 2011/12/13), and I have developed a reputation amongst my friends and family for being a ‘total hard-arse’.
Now that’s not to say that you need to be a total jerk (although in some cases it does help). What it really boils down to is subtle (mostly) manipulation. Just ask my husband.
Hit the markets early in the morning if you can. You want to try and be someones first or ‘lucky’ sale. Superstition is often on your side! During or after rain has also made for a bargain filled day.
Firstly, scope out the place. Take the time to have a good look around and see what is available. Avoid impulse purchases, you may find a better quality object further on. Take note of how welcoming the merchant is and how much they gesticulate. The more friendly, the more likely it is that you are about to be their first sale. If you don’t hear a peep, then its likely that your not going to get a very good bargain.
Upon entering the shop remain aloof. If you can, do not make eye contact with the store merchant, but do be friendly. Resist touching the merchandise and don’t let your gaze rest on any object for too long. You need to remain indifferent, no matter how much you're lusting over said object.
It’s more than likely that the merchant will try and engage you in conversation; ‘where are you from’, ‘where have you been today’, ‘you're very beautiful’, ‘is this your husband/wife’, ‘will you marry me’ (Lake Batur, Kintamani 2002), etc etc.
This is the beginning of their sales pitch. The merchant is trying to build up a rapport with you through friendliness, humour or flattery so that you will be less reluctant to barter hard. Stay strong, be nice and engage with them. Remember manipulation, especially humour and flattery works both ways!
Now, once you have established what you want, you may begin to inspect the object. It should be obvious, but look for flaws or quirks. At this point the merchant should become more friendly, and their sales pitch will become more passive aggressive. The merchant will either give you a price, ask you for a price or start to show you other objects that are alike. At this point I find silent treatment works for a little bit.
Now, before you start the bidding, consider how much you want the item, how much you would pay for it back home and how much you think its worth. It’s also worth considering if you have room in your suitcase and if you need to declare this item with customs. Don’t get caught up in buying what I like to call ‘tourist crap’; ask yourself if this is something you will regret or make your doubt your mental faculties upon return to your abode.
Once you have a price in mind, convert it to the local currency, and halve it. I often start well below my half point, I’ve noticed many merchants are clued in on this method. I start my bidding by asking the merchant what their price is. Never be the first to offer a price, no matter how insistent they are. They have you pegged as a chump.
Upon hearing/ seeing (if they have a calculator) the first price I encourage scoffing, shaking your head or laughing! If you have a companion with you, relay the ‘ridiculous’ price to them, encouraging astonishment. The merchant should respond with either a ‘better price’ or prompt you to offer yours.
If your entering your price into a calculator, it’s worth testing that it hasn’t been rigged to include extra zeroes, (Patong Beach, Thailand 1996). Now it’s the merchants turn to fein astonishment or sometimes anger. If you have gone too low, well it’s most likely all over for you my friend. I’ve had many a merchant turn heal or tell me to piss off. Fun!
If your still bidding, only come up by very small increments. If you holding the item point out flaws, or the lack of quality, even if they don’t exist. The phrase “I can get it better/cheaper back home”, or “I can get it cheaper with your competitor” often works. It’s all part of the fun, and it will make the merchant become a bit defensive, which means cracks in their armour. (Now I really sound like a jerk).
The merchant may start to offer you other items of a lesser quality, or offer you ‘bulk discounts’. Keep your eye on the prize, be blunt, say a firm “no” (without the thank you if your in total hard-arse mode) and redirect back to the bidding war.
Once your approaching your final price you need to be prepared to walk away and completely leave the shop. This is my piece de resistance. If your holding the item put it down, it doesn’t need to be in the original place, I have been know to put something down on the floor. You can try and pass it back to the merchant, but I bet they won’t take it. If you are leaving the store, keeping shaking your head and repeating a firm “no”, repeating your final price. Walk at a casual pace and it helps to start looking at other stalls, especially if they have a similar item. It’s at this point I WIN! Ha ha!
But the game's not over yet. Once you have agreed upon the price, keep an eye on the item. Watch the merchant wrap the item and be wary if they ‘go out the back’. Always check, don’t be afraid to unwrap packaging. My Dad once bought new t-shirts without backs. Right on, Dad!
Take your time to count your money, especially if your unfamiliar with the currency. Always check your change is correct, and watch out for folded or inferior notes.
Be smart, diamonds are often big cubic zirconia (Mum!), and it’s not always sensible to engage with someone that approaches you on the street. Always keep out an eye for pick pockets, and never ‘hold’ something for a stranger. I find I’m always conned at least once on a trip, but it’s all part of the fun, and it often makes for a great anecdote.
But sometimes it’s just the luck of the game.