You don't need to be a used-car salesman to bargain like a pro but like any skill it takes practice to master but can be incredibly useful especially when travelling on a budget. Making good purchases while travelling is just like any other skill that takes time and practise to master. It's a strange combination of people sense, business sense and good, old-fashioned manners that make it so tricky. There's no one method to bargain well - it's really a combination of all these things we'll talk about.
Please beware: The context of the article is around markets, taxis and make-shift stores, where bargaining is part of the shopping experience. Do not try this at your local high street shop.
Ask the locals for advice. If you're going somewhere new, nudge some of the locals for tips. Think of the people you'll speak to before you even go shopping - the hotel porter, the taxi driver etc. It never hurts to come right out and ask, but do it tactfully and respectfully. Nobody knows a city like the people who live and work there. It helps to be inquisitive and friendly - but not to a point where you become irritating. Even if you don't learn anything new, it's always great to meet new people from different parts of the world.
Be cool. The best thing you can do when shopping for bargains is to relax and take a good look around before opening your wallet. Do not buy from the first stall you visit! If you hop off the tour bus and start ooh-ing and aah-ing over everything right away, the owners aren't going to work for your business. You will likely be quoted the highest price and treated like an easy-sale. If possible, take your time. You'll often find that stalls tucked away in more obscure places will offer better prices and deals because they get noticed less than prominent ones. Don't get roped into a sales pitch by one of the vendors or invite too much assistance from anyone during your first round. Just be cool and keep your cards close to your chest. Before you start negotiating prices or trying to squeeze a two-for-one deal out of someone, ask yourself these three important questions:
- Can I get this at home and if so, is it cheaper?
- How much are other stalls charging for this item?
- Is the listed price reasonable?
Know the law of the land. Do some research about the 'bargaining code' in the country or city you're visiting. The last thing you want to do is offend somebody by trying to shave a few quid off a leather handbag, when the prices aren't actually up for debate. At the same time, there might be a trick to bargaining in certain places that you don't want to miss out on.
For example, in Zimbabwe a few years ago, my family and I took pens and notepads to a street market, where vendors gladly lowered their prices in exchange for some stationery. Again this year, somebody told me to bring whiskey to the Port Louis Market in Mauritius, which is terribly expensive for locals to buy. I didn't do it (whiskey was still terribly expensive on my own budget, but my source swore it was the cheapest way to leave the market with a wheel-barrow full of loot. You'll give yourself a much better chance of success by simply asking questions.
If you're going somewhere known for bargain shopping, like Bangkok or Goa for example, you'll find bushels of information on online travel forums. By posing a question and starting a dialogue with other travellers - especially people who've been to the places you are going - you'll pick up some useful tips and suggestions.
Sell an idea. If you're shopping for souvenirs like t-shirts, key rings, flags, miniature statues (the kind of stuff that all tourists end up going home with), offer a bulk deal. This is where having a market sussed out before making any offers will come in handy.
Before you make an offer: watch and learn. Try to walk into every new store with an open mind. Pay attention to the way store vendors are interacting with clients and try to pick up on what people are doing right and wrong. If a market is as busy as television static and the owners are getting annoyed by people who ask too many questions, think about what you want to say and ambush him or her with a direct plan. Work out how much five shirts will cost and make an offer. You don't need to feel weird about it - just say: “I'll give you X amount for five shirts“ and have the cash ready. It's an easy sale for them and you'll walk away having saved a bit of dough.
If a store is quiet and the vendors are happy to chat to people, strike up a conversation. Take your time and don't rush them for a price once the conversation is moving along. With a bit of luck, the store vendor will take a shining to you and offer a good price. If not, at least you will have made a friend.
Communicate effectively. Speak clearly, look comfortable (not overly confident) and don't be nervous. This is especially important if you are in a country where English isn't the first language, or in a place where the background noises can interfere with what you're saying. I think this is where people get scared of being ripped-off, so they either end up shouting or over-gesturing, which must be pretty funny and annoying to store owners. The best way to go about things is to communicate using an even-handed combination of both. Make yourself heard and point to the object if it helps. You don't need to lock eyes and stare the vendor down to avoid getting taken for a ride.
Go to destinations with a weaker currency. The pound often goes a long way in developing countries.
Don't treat 'em mean to keep 'em keen. You don't have to be rude to get a good deal. A smile and a clear, respectful tone is all you need to get the best from most people. If a store owner is unfriendly and irritable, try to decide if the behaviour is justified. If it's not, move on and look for the same thing elsewhere - unless you're in a hurry and willing to pay the tag price.
Don't dress for success. Don't dress like money's not a problem. Stick to plain, comfortable clothing that won't make you stand out. Leave your gold jewellery, diamonds and expensive accessories at the hotel, in favour of a backpack and a water bottle. The less like a rich tourist you look, the better. Just as you're on the hunt for a good buy, store owners and vendors are on the hunt for a good sell - and by wearing your most impressive outfit, you'll place a target on your back.
Don't be greedy. Negotiating prices at markets is an exciting break from the norm. We can't do the same thing at the nearest High Street outlet, so the novelty is all part of the holiday. But if you're in a particularly poor country where people are just trying to make a living by selling the wares, there's no need to make a sport out of their difficult situation. It probably goes without saying, but be aware of getting sucked into the fun and forgetting that you're dealing with people. If the goods on offer are dirt cheap (as they tend to be in Africa and parts of Asia), just consider yourself lucky to be able to travel and absorb new experiences, and cough up the two pounds.
Last Updated: November 2012