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5 Bargaining Tips from a Seasoned Street Market Shopper

Updated on September 28, 2015
One can easily get lost when shopping at Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. It is really really huge. Bargaining there is a big challenge too.
One can easily get lost when shopping at Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. It is really really huge. Bargaining there is a big challenge too.

Introduction

'Please charge me slightly cheaper.' Saying that one liner or repeating it multiple times will not guarantee a reduced price when trying to bargain with stall owners at street markets. One has to bargain more effectively as haggling can be a slow and torturous process for both the potential buyer and seller if it drags too long and worst still if there is no transaction agreed upon after all the wrangling.

Bargaining is no less a skill than an artform. It is obvious that not everyone would be able to negotiate with a street market vendor over lowering the price in a particular transaction successfully all the times. The art of bargaining requires an acquired skillset that can only be honed over proper practice. It takes time to develop that skillset and sometimes the skills used in a particular country's street market may not necessarily work in a different country's shops. That is why I shall not delve into the specific skillsets required to bargain well. Instead, I will offer fresh insights which will hopefully help you secure a good deal when negotiating and leave both parties contented after the transaction.

I went to Cat Street or Upper Lascar Row of Hong Kong in search of the Antique market very early in the morning and managed to secure some good deals after successful bargaining attempts. :)
I went to Cat Street or Upper Lascar Row of Hong Kong in search of the Antique market very early in the morning and managed to secure some good deals after successful bargaining attempts. :)

5 Tips-to-Go

These are five of my personal thoughts, tips and observations regarding effective bargaining;

1. Shop early - 'The early bird catches the most worms.'

This is especially true in Eastern Asian countries or when dealing with Chinese sellers in particular. There is a belief that a smooth transaction just after the shop is opened would bring good luck and higher sales later in the day. Thus, first customers tend to be treated better due to auspicious reasons. In a less superstitious way, people normally want to start off their day in a good mood and are therefore more willing to give in to a reasonably lower price for an early transaction. With the same logic, most street market vendors are also more willing to lower their prices and sell their wares at the end of a business day just before they close their shops. It simply makes their day start and end well. Just as there are good times to shop, there are also some bad times to start bargaining. One example I'd like to mention is the time just before the shopkeepers' usual lunch hour. I am certain most of you must have heard of the phrase, 'A hungry man is an angry man.' This implies that shop owners or sellers are often the least patient and forgiving people when you try to bargain with them just before or during their eating time. However, if you think about it carefully, you just might be able to clinch a good and fast deal if you play your cards right and manage to convince them to lower their prices to complete the transaction and allow them to continue with their meal break. This first tip is all about the timing.

Knowing what you want and where you can find it helps save time too. For example, some things in Siem Reap, Cambodia can only be found at the night market.
Knowing what you want and where you can find it helps save time too. For example, some things in Siem Reap, Cambodia can only be found at the night market.

2. Don't bargain unreasonably

As for the second tip, I feel that it really helps to have a clear idea of your budget as well as your needs and wants. With those in mind, conduct some research beforehand on the expected price range of the goods intended for purchase. Also, think about the possible costs of the product and how much you are willing to forgo to get it assuming you can afford it in the first place. The rationale behind all that preparation and thinking before the actual shopping is because not everyone accommodates bargaining and even if they do some may have a shorter fuse than others when the haggling drags too long. The reason I mention this is because it could get ugly. In some street markets that I've been to, I noticed how bargaining can lead to shouting and I have also heard stories of people being warned or followed by gangsters after bargaining too much without eventually purchasing anything. Another way to think about this tip when bargaining with salespersons is that your gain is their loss. Sometimes, purchasing something at a very low price can affect the livelihood of those whom you buy from. Spare a thought and do consider the inconvenience and hassle you may create if you bargain too much.

Dress down when shopping at street markets just like the family above who were looking for toys for the child at the Jalan Surabaya Flea market in Indonesia.
Dress down when shopping at street markets just like the family above who were looking for toys for the child at the Jalan Surabaya Flea market in Indonesia.

3. Shop owners can spot easy prey (rich tourists) from afar

When shopping in street markets, try not to dress too lavishly. If possible, avoid wearing too much jewellry or carry fancy gadgets and try to blend in the crowd. Once a shopkeeper identifies you as a tourist with a thick wallet, your attempts at bargaining will be futile. Also, beware of the colour-coded plastic bags trick. This is something I noticed when I was shopping at Ben Thanh market in the Ho Chi Minh city of Vietnam. After every transaction, some of the salesperson actually hesitate and think about the colour of the plastic bag in which they place your purchase. From what I observed, easy preys tend to be given red or brightly coloured plastic bags in shades of pink or yellow. These are normally seen on the hands of tourists who tend to overdress for such street market shopping and are often the kinds who don't bother to bargain much before settling on the price. On the other hand, hardcore bargainers are actually given white or black plastic bags. Although it is possible that I am reading too much into the colours of the plastic bags, I still believe that it acts as a strong signal for one seller to inform other sellers of the particular shopper's strength or weakness and this could lead to easy sales and higher profits for the sellers in that sense. A personal suggestion that could counter the effect of the signals is to bring a bag along when shopping to hide all the plastic bags in them or better still, help reduce plastic consumption by rejecting those plastic bags.

Bargaining at the Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Surprisingly, the salespersons there can even speak a bit of Malay, my mother tongue.
Bargaining at the Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Surprisingly, the salespersons there can even speak a bit of Malay, my mother tongue.

4. Speak a bit of their language

Effective bargaining requires effective communication skills but it need not always be in the language that you speak. The next time you bargain, try to speak a bit of the seller's language or alternatively make use of body language or sign language. Even if you struggle and show your vulnerability in the bargaining process, the response more often than not is favourable to you. This is because when you show your willingness to give & take and make the effort to negotiate in the seller's terms they will also be more willing to lower their prices for you or even add in a free gift. Moreover, speaking in their language also suggests that you may have been there in their country for a bit and can't be overcharged or conned too easily at exorbitant tourist prices. Thus, make an effort to learn some simple phrases in the commonly spoken languages of the places that you are heading to as it goes a long way to improve your travel experience.

Befriended an Italian craftsman in Pisa, Italy. He customized a unique gift for me out of cutleries and silverware. He even offered me a freebie as a gesture of goodwill.
Befriended an Italian craftsman in Pisa, Italy. He customized a unique gift for me out of cutleries and silverware. He even offered me a freebie as a gesture of goodwill.

5. Make small talk, build rapport, be friendly

Last but definitely not least, is the significance of creating connections. Making small talk, being friendly and building rapport with traders or shopkeepers can ease your bargaining chances. Such interactions could change the dynamics or relationship from a buyer-seller to friend-friend as the sellers might be interested to learn about you and your culture just as much as you in theirs. If you are still studying or you look young enough to use the 'I'm a student please give me a discount' line, you could actually tug at their heartstrings as they recall their own hardships when they were still studying or even make them think of their own children who might still be students too. In the same line of thought, you can mention that you are buying gift for family members back home and start a conversation about the shopkeepers own family. Having common traits of being a family man helps the seller relate to you as a friend and quite possibly give you a discount on your purchases. However, do note that I do not recommend lying as most people can see through lies and only genuine interest can generate a true connection.

5 stars for "BEST EVER TRAVEL TIPS" Book by Lonely Planet

Did the tips mentioned in the article above give you a better idea of how to bargain?

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Conclusion

As an avid solo backpacker, I know how important it is to scrimp and save whenever possible. Therefore, I hope that the tips and observations shared above will come in handy especially for all travellers who live on a tight budget or simply do not intend to get conned but still want to get a piece of memento and purchase some souvenirs for the few friends and family members back home. Always remember to have fun and enjiy the process even if you did not reach your ideal bargaining outcome. Do drop me a message if the tips worked for you or share your own bargaining experiences with me by filling up the comment box below.

© 2015 Suhaimi Zainal Shah

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    • Suhaimizs profile image
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      Suhaimi Zainal Shah 2 years ago from Singapore

      Happy to know that the tips are helpful Hannah. Do come back and share if they really worked in Morocco or they could be an exception.

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      Hannah 2 years ago

      This oculdn't have come at a better time! I'm off to Morocco soon and I'm rubbish at bargaining so these are really useful, thanks!

    • Suhaimizs profile image
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      Suhaimi Zainal Shah 2 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Conor and Ashlee for your comments. I'm glad you could relate to the article.

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      Ashlee 2 years ago

      I totally agree with the first tip.

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      Conor 2 years ago

      Yup, it's all about being friendly and not an arrogant tourist looking for the cheapest price.

      I think you have to strike a fair balance. You want a nice price, but at the same time you don't want to leave this guy out of pocket with a family to feed!

      Nonetheless I love bartering, I think Turkey is one of the most fun places to do it :)

    • Suhaimizs profile image
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      Suhaimi Zainal Shah 2 years ago from Singapore

      Yups Bettina. It is important to enjoy the process off bargaining as well.

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      Bettina 2 years ago

      I agree that speaking a little in their language goes a long way when bargaining! Even if it's just numbers. I learnt how to say "that's so expensive" in Cambodia and would throw it in with a smile and a laugh every now and then which would make the seller smile and laugh too. Makes it more fun too!

    • Suhaimizs profile image
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      Suhaimi Zainal Shah 2 years ago from Singapore

      That is true Nicola, hope the article helped.

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      Nicola 2 years ago

      Great post, sometimes markets can be frustrating when you don't know what you are doing!!

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      Suhaimi Zainal Shah 2 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Annemarie for your comment. Glad that the article is helpful to you. :)

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      Annemarie 2 years ago

      Great article! I m pretty bad at bargaining, so this is super helpful.