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While I've done quite a bit of travel now and back myself when it comes to border guards, sorting accommodation and / or transportation, one thing I still struggle to come to terms with is haggling in the markets, be it for food, clothing or other.

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Image © Peter Morgan, 2014 http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmorgan/62563356

What is the best way to go about this? I'm generally either worried I'll offend them, or that they're trying to rip me off anyway, so it's a weird combination of awkwardness inside my head ;)

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I take it you're haggling to save money, rather than for the fun of it? –  Andrew Grimm Feb 3 '12 at 1:08
Oh I'd like to be able to enjoy it, it's just something totally foreign to me generally so it takes getting used to. –  Mark Mayo Feb 3 '12 at 1:41
This is a comment because I don't know whether it's true, but is swearing (either in English, mother****er, or in the local language) an important part of haggling? –  Andrew Grimm Feb 3 '12 at 2:17
@AndrewGrimm Most of the offence that sellers take during haggling is faked, but if you start swearing then they may genuinely be offended. They may still do a sale because they need the money but they will also think less of you for doing it. –  Ankur Banerjee Feb 4 '12 at 20:37

8 Answers 8

up vote 57 down vote accepted

I have haggled over the scarfs on the Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh. The starting price was usually around 200DH and I was able to buy for 65DH. I was totally unexperienced back then but I made some observations:

  • Wait to be invited by the shopkeeper. Pretend you are just passing by and stopping for a moment to look at the wares.
  • Do not express interest too soon. If they make the effort to convince you, you will have a stronger position later.
  • Hesitate to name your price. Try to to bargain their price as low as possible first.
  • Bargaining is a social activity. Just stay there, stare at goods, talk. You do not need to be discussing the price whole the time. It is about carrying on the conversation and giving a room for the price to settle down.
  • Adopt the lingo. Phrases like "it is not a real price, give me a real price" are funny to use and show that you have been around for some time.
  • Offer to buy more goods for a lower price with caution. Their mathematics is not quite the same as ours.
  • Usually they just pretend to be offended. Simply carry on or walk away if you feel uncomfortable. Even if you happen to name a price that is too low, do not be discouraged by their behavior.
  • Walking away can bring the price down significantly. Try this if you reached a dead end. Usually they will be shouting lower prices with your every step. Even if this does not happen they will not be offended if you come back.
  • Knowing real prices can help. You can ask the staff at international hostels, hotels, etc. But even without knowing it you can quickly develop a good feeling for it.
  • Haggling is tiring. It usually takes up to half an hour. Even if you are not quite satisfied with the price, think whether you want to start this process over.
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This is a great answer that covers pretty much all of the tactics I use. My favorite thing to say (other than "that guy over there has the same thing for [x money units] cheaper") is "That's a great price for tourists; what's the price for friends?" This usually gets a chuckle and some negotiating; it lets them know I think they're asking too much but doesn't insult them with an insanely low counter-offer. Just a note about walking away: I find that this works better earlier in the conversation. The longer you talk, the more it seems like you want the item. –  Laura Feb 2 '12 at 16:17
@AhmedMasud I think mithy's saying to not assume that you'll get a "bulk discount". I don't know where mithy is from (or you, for that matter), but in Europe and North America, it's pretty common for people to expect a discount if they buy more than one of an item. I think "mathematics" might just have been a poor word choice; maybe "economies of scale" is better? –  Laura Feb 2 '12 at 16:19
Also remember for most things there are 37 people in the market area selling more or less exactly the same thing, so walking don the way and talking to the next guy is a valid option. –  Zachary K Feb 2 '12 at 16:39
I'd add another point to this answer: Beware if the price drops way too low! I remember haggling in Turkey where a bag supposedly made out of genuine leather dropped from 150 Euros to 10. We still bought it, because the price was very low, but we'd never e.g. gift it to another person. –  thkala Feb 3 '12 at 0:15
@thkala: Maybe you could give it to a vegan? Not being made out of real leather would not be a bug, it'd be a feature. –  Andrew Grimm Feb 3 '12 at 2:46

The only real way to be successful at this is to start knowing the value you place on the item and never pay more than this. Start your haggling below this price - a good rule of thumb is for your starting price to be around the same amount below your final as the asking price is above.

Some countries like to bargain harder, but at the end of the day, you can always walk away. If they want to make the sale at the price you ask, they will, but as long as you limit yourself to that value you set at the start then you won't be ripped off.

(it's a bit how I approach eBay - set my max at the start then have a look after the bidding is complete. The bit in the middle is just to try and persuade you to pay more than you planned.)

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Never base your haggling on the value that you place on the item. As a westerner, you will always have an inflated idea of the value. The real price is often unbelievably low. Only experience will give you a true idea of how much to pay. –  Rincewind42 Feb 4 '12 at 3:41
Unless you are haggling for the enjoyment of it (which some do) the only criterion you can use is what you are willing to pay. The actual market value or cost to the trader is almost irrelevant. Sometimes you will pay over, sometimes under the real value - as long as you are paying what you think is reasonable, that's fine. –  Rory Alsop Feb 4 '12 at 10:08
In those cases you don't really need to read other people's haggling advice because you've already decided you'll buy it and the haggling will just be part of the local experience. So I don't think it's as relevant to this question. –  hippietrail Dec 8 '13 at 6:01

You need to have a real understanding of what the local currency is worth in your home currency. It's very easy to get blinded by large numbers.

I was in Indonesia, haggling over a set of wicker place mats. The exchange was about 9000 Rupiah to the USD. Starting price was 250,000 Rupiah for a set, about $27.00. We ended up paying 100,000, The price drops fast at first, and then we spent a lot of time in 10,000 R increments.

The funny thing is, that I wasted about 15 minutes per US dollar of savings. I could have quickly closed the deal at 160,000 or so, and moved on. We were blinded by the large numbers involved in the local currency. We saved 10000 of something, that's got to be a lot right?

Tips: If you are in a patriarchal society, and traveling as a couple, the act to put on is the eager, but financially naive wife, and the frugal husband. Let the wife do the bargaining. When bargaining gets a bit tough, then the angry husband should chastise the wife for wasting all of his money. This lets the shopkeeper know that there is a sale to be made, but the price will have to go down. There is a strong man around who is willing to put his foot down, and keep his wife from frittering away the family wealth.

This works well in southeast Asia, but not necessarily the Philippines. Filipino wives tend to rule the roost and the purse strings.

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That's my problem at times: Yes, I know it's a ripoff, but even if I end up paying a tenth, I've only saved a few dollars. Should I haggle out of principle, or just enjoy that I'm "filthy rich"? –  Jonas Feb 2 '12 at 15:41
@Jonas That's probably mostly a personal choice, but my thought is: if I see/hear other people paying substantially less than what I'm being offered, I will not pay a tourist price. The economy of my home country doesn't matter much; I should pay a fair price in the local economy. That being said, I do occasionally shop at government-subsidized markets that benefit rural cottage industries, for example, and pay 2x what I would in a different market. But it's an informed and conscious choice about where I shop. I don't really blame merchants for wanting to make as much money as possible though. –  Laura Feb 2 '12 at 16:27
Do you mean "patriachal", not "paternalistic"? –  Andrew Grimm Feb 3 '12 at 3:06

You need two things: 1) a good feeling for the local prices and 2) experience.

Haggling is more than just quoting low prices. It about your complete presentation and attitude. When they quote me their first price (I will never be the one to call the first price), I usually just smile at them, maybe tell them it is a ridiculous amount etc. So, while not quoting an amount, I am actually haggling, just not with words yet.

It's very hard to estimate the actual bottom price, however, (generally) they will not sell below their minimum profit margin. If you hit the real bottom price, you will know. After this happened to you once or twice, you will start to get a feeling for it. (and learn that many times before, they just made you feel like it was the bottom price, but it was actually not.)

If the starting quote is such a ridiculous amount that, if you bring the price down to half, you still pay too much: walk away. Not for show, but for real. As you say, you are worried about offending them, keep in mind they can offend you as well.
This may result in an instant drop in the price. However, if I walk away in a situation like this, they will need to be quite convincing to bring me back to the negotiations.

edited to add:
Don't forget, haggling can be fun! It's a very social activity; if you take your time for negotiations, it can be quite rewarding.

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I got pretty good at this when I was in Thailand, you just have to remember the basic rules

  • If you say "Ok" you can't take your word back.
  • The seller will never sell at a loss so don't have fear.

The greatest lesson learned while haggling is NEVER think that the starting price is somehow related to the value of the object. At first i thought "Well, they are asking me 2,000 Baht, so they will sell it at around 700-800". No it doesn't work this way. They try to rip you off in this way.
Once I started bargaining from 60,000 and after three hours I was down to 2,000 (it was a pair of fake Nike shoes). I saw a lot of people buy them for 20,000 and think they got a bargain. In the end I was told that 2,000 was the minimum and that minimum was held for one hour and I really don't think I could've got anything lower.
To arrive at that point I spent a lot of time going away for a little and then coming back with an offer that was at least a little bit higher so that the conversation could keep going and when I got stuck I simply walked away. Since he started from 60,000 I started from 60.
But I was 17 and so I had a lot of spare time, if you just have 15 minutes it's much more difficult.

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Please tell me the valuation of the Baht has changed. It looks like people were paying 20000 B = 620 USD for fake running shoes. –  Chris Cudmore Feb 2 '12 at 15:20
@ChrisCudmore I'm talking of 1997-98 it was the equivalent of 200.000 lire (in italy those shoes costed 330.000 lire) –  Nicola Peluchetti Feb 2 '12 at 15:29
@NicolaPeluchetti The fake ones or the real ones? –  Random832 Feb 3 '12 at 14:30

The single most difficult task in haggling is known the right price of the object you are trying to buy. It's not even the time spent haggling because you could have been quoted such an outrageously high price that even when you drive it down, the price is too high. What I do is strike up a rapport with hostel staff and ask them for ballpark figures for souvenir items. Usually, they won't mislead you.

The other things I have found from experience is that Westerners are uncomfortable making aggressive reductions in price. The price you first quote during haggling should be much below what you really want to pay because the social interaction of haggling makes it implicit that the shopkeeper will use that as a baseline to drive up the price. Many inexperienced hagglers will name what they think is a fair price as the starting point, from where on you only lose because the price will go up from that point.

Also you should know where not to haggle. That would be a faux pas. For instance, never haggle at branded stores or bookstores, those items usually have fixed prices. Stores with printed price tags are usually ones where haggling is not allowed but not necessarily so as sometimes some stores try to trick you into not haggling with a higher price tag with the expectation that you won't haggle. Again, knowing the local price helps in this situation. Bear in mind that legitimate branded stores, souvenir shops or bookstores will give you the correct local price, not an inflated figure.

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Adding to the above: Good way to find a ball-park price is to find a similar item in a department store or a 5-start hotel. You know the 5-star hotel is going to be a rip-off so it puts the market prices into perspective. –  WW. Feb 5 '12 at 0:00

The easiest way to haggle, especially if you're inexperienced and feel awkward doing it, is to get a "bulk discount". So if you're interested in buying multiple items, always talk about only one item at first and then suggest you might buy e.g. two for 150% of the price of one. Of course this won't help much with real ripoff prices, but it's a way to get started.

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Start with price / 100, and move up to price / 4.

The best option according my experience. You get the discount and you are honored by locals. Try to do it artistically, and good luck.

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Not going to work with every currency. For instance with Indonesian rupiah, your figure will be too high while in Moroccan dinar, price / 100 for anything will actually be too low. –  Ankur Banerjee Feb 6 '12 at 15:12
I find these ratios vary greatly from country to country and whether you're buying at a tourist place or a market for locals. I considered myself a pretty good haggler in Central America but found my skills utterly useless years later in China. –  hippietrail Dec 8 '13 at 6:10

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