The Fine Art of Haggling

Here in the United Kingdom we have probably all seen one of the advertisements for a certain well known car insurance comparison company in which a familiar Arabic actor informs us ‘Brits’ that we are hopeless at haggling. There is a certain amount of truth in this, we have all probably returned from our holidays this year with an item or items that seemed a great bargain at the time, but in retrospect we are a little less proud of our ability to barter than we were after leaving the stall or shop! Browsing market stalls and backstreet shops in Marrakech or Egypt in search for a bargain is part of the charm and pleasure of travelling. Finding that perfect souvenir at a ‘knockdown’ price gives us something to treasure and a story of our prestigious bartering skills to regale our family and friends with for decades.

Haggling for souvenirs in the Marrakech souks, Morocco Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure, photography

Bargain hunting in the souks

There is undoubtedly a skill to haggling, and one that unfortunately evades a great many of us. It involves walking a fine line between being ‘ripped’ off and leaving a market stall holder with fair payment for his product. It is blatantly obvious to the average travelling bargain hunter that any stall holder worth his salt can spot a tourist at one thousand paces. The pale skin and expensive travelling accessories are more than enough for even the most myopic trader to notice and will double, triple or even quadruple his prices in accordance.

It is all too easy to become indignant and curse their greediness, but before doing so it is worth taking a moment and try to see it from their perspective. Regardless of our personal financial situation, the chances are we are much better off than the street ‘urchin’ or stall holder selling their wares, the very fact we can afford to visit their country proves this. The chances they will ever travel far afield are almost certainly nil. Our travelling paraphernalia also gives them the impression that we are much wealthier than they, expensive cameras, sunglasses and clothing, when their only concern is putting food on the table for their family. The result of this perception is that they believe we can easily afford it and a good price obtained for the right item may feed their family for several days or more!

Haggling in the fabric and cloth in the Egyptian stalls on Mallory on Travel adventure, photography

Check the goods

Eccentric millionaire

Of course unless you are an eccentric millionaire who is happy to ‘donate’ plenty of spare cash to the local community there needs to be a balance between avoiding paying over the odds and leaving the merchant a little less than satisfied. It is extremely unusual that a street ‘hawker’ or souk stall holder will lose any money on the deal, but occasionally a merchant may accept a lower price than is fair just because he desperately needs a sale.

The first thing to do is hideaway all those expensive accessories, lose the ‘bling’ factor. You will of course still be perceived as wealthy, but if you do not have an ultra-expensive camera on view or a twenty four carat artefact which is more appropriate in Fort Knox than hanging from your neck it will not be as blatant. You should always remain polite, and respectful, this is not always so easy when being ‘pestered’ continually and from all directions, but remain composed, a polite but firm rebuttal is usually sufficient.

One of the main problems is actually evaluating the object of your desire, as the prices will often vary wildly between shops and stalls. Do not make your purchase from the first shop, stall or hawker that attracts your attention, be patient and have a good look around before deciding on where to spend your money. You can always return to the original stall if you do not find an alternative, but often there is another with a higher quality product or in exactly the right colour and often at a better price very nearby.

Haggling in the kasbah near Quazarate, Morocco Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure, photography

Markets or small shops, bartering is usually standard practice

Decide for yourself how much you would be prepared to pay for the article in your own currency back home and then make a quick calculation using the exchange rate to convert it to the local currency. Decide the absolute maximum you are prepared to pay and stick to it, always be prepared to walk away if the negotiation is not going as you want and the price remains above your maximum. Provided you have remained polite and it is apparent to the merchant you will not be harassed into making a purchase they will often bring their price down to yours.

Evaluate the purchase

The merchant will undoubtedly start at an unrealistic price, often far above its true value, a good ploy is to immediately start walking away, they will almost certainly drop the asking price dramatically. This gives you a good basic place to start, it is still likely to be above your own valuation so suggest a price below your own and see how things flow. Try to engage and relate with the seller, add a little humour, their English is often very good and will understand a great deal, remember to have fun, it should be enjoyable.

Haggling for pottery at a souk in Nizwa, Oman on Mallory on Travel adventure, photography

Bargains vary

Be careful of the merchant adding several more items to your purchase and offering them at a bargain price. This is a common trick, it only results in you buying a number of articles you did not really want and paying over the odds for each of them. The general rule is if it looks too good to be true it probably is, so unless it really does seem to be a genuine good deal, politely stick to your guns and refuse the extras.

Once you become proficient at the haggling game you can use it in a variety of different scenarios, taxis are a prime example. Using taxis regularly you will soon become aware of the ‘going’ rate for the most common trips, this will enable you to use your bartering powers to get yourself the best deal each time you need a cab.

Okay so now you are an expert, just remember to be polite, sensitive to the economic situation of the country in which you are travelling and most of all have fun and you will soon be returning from trips abroad with bagfuls of top quality bargains from all around the world. Good luck.

What are you own experiences of ‘hawkers’ and haggling, do you enjoy it, find it a necessary evil or simply hate the whole process? Any tips that you wish to share, I look forward to reading your comments.


Comments 8

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  1. Mitch

    Haggling, bartering, whatever you call it is most definitely an art. I have overheard many an excited fellow traveler talking about the “great deal” they got on a great souvenir. Unfortunately on more than one of these occasions either myself or one of my companions had purchased the same thing for far less. I find myself biting my tongue in these moments. Knowing what things are worth and how much you are willing to spend are important, but so is coming home with a great memento of your trip!

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      Totally agree at the end of the day, as long as it it worth what the individual paid for it to them that is all that matters and they had a little fun along the way. Ok so in some cases the trader got more than it was worth, in many of the places we all travel to can we really begrudge them a few extra sheckles?

  2. Susanne

    Very helpful – I’ve never bartered and am a little anxious at the thought, especially as I’m worried guilt will be an after-effect..
    I was also wondering where that second to last photo was taken; from the little I can see beyond the stall it looks interesting.
    Thank-you 🙂

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      There isn’t any reason to feel guilty, traders will not leave themselves short, just enjoy it and have some fun. That photo was taken at a kasbah near Ouarzazate, Morocco.

  3. matt

    Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts.Any way Ill be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon. Thanks so much!

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