20 April 2008

The Steve's Guide to Hagglin'

Since I am in that region of the world, stretching from Morocco to China, where you have to tediously negotiate the price of everything, I thought I would share some of my notes on the subject gathered after long experience. Most of this applies specifically to India, where I have been most recently, but since they invented the subtle art, these strategies will work anywhere crafty merchants are trying to rip you off.

1. Don't believe anything they say. This is Rule Number One.

2. Know the product and what it's worth, especially expensive items like carpets and statues. If you're ignorant about what you're buying, such as where it's made, by whom, and out of what, then you deserve to get Shanghaied.

3. Don't be in a rush. Check several shops before deciding. If shopkeepers sense you are hurrying through the process, they will stonewall you.

4. Avoid trick questions: What country are you from? Is this your first time in (e.g.) India? What is your profession? What other shops have you been to? Etc. They ask them to figure out your likely income and gullibility levels. Dodge them, lie, or don't even listen.

5. Ignore friendliness, meekness, servility, unctuousness, avuncularism, and cool dudeism--it's total bullshit and these pretenses often hide significant nastiness, which surfaces when you refuse to buy. Refer to Rule Number One.

6. Don't let them become your friend. Don't let them drag you into long conversations about your country, your family, life philosophy, etc. Ignore attempts to convert you to Islam. Your relationship is antagonistic--remember that. These people are not going to send you birthday cards. Why do you people insist on forgetting Rule Number One?

7. Wave away any attempts on their part to justify their prices or level of customer satisfaction with material evidence like logbooks or photos. Or look without seeing. If you play it cool, they may figure out that you're not going to be fooled so easily. Smile+glazed expression=success.

8. Don't ever feel pressured or guilty. Even if they follow you around, show you everything in the store, take things out of storage for you, and spend half a day explaining the virtues of their merchandise, you are not obligated to spend a dime. They are just doing their job and most of the time more of a job than you ever asked them to do. Ignore them when they claim they can't lower prices because they'd be losing money, get in trouble with their boss, or their families will starve to death. It's all bullshit. Refer to Rule Number One, please.
Note: at some shops, you will be asked to sit down to drink tea, especially at shops selling expensive items like carpets or other high-end items. This is a normal custom, not part of the scam, per se, so feel free to enjoy it, but don't feel pressured to buy a $2000 statue of Vishnu just because the salesman offered you a 50 cent cup of tea. Good salesmen won't actually rush you through such significant purchases, while deceitful ones will seem rather panicky about getting you to buy as quickly as possible so you don't have time to think and consider.

9. Ignore price qualifications, and by this I mean any justification they offer as a reason for the unusually "amazing" deal they allege to be offering you. This comes in many forms: because you're, e.g., American and they like Americans or their daughter/son/nephew is married to one; because you're a student/teacher/doctor/very good man/woman; because you're the first/last sale of the day; etc. Also pay no attention when they say "fixed price" or "last price." Sometimes some of these things can be true, but you'll never know when they are or when they're just trying to con you. Also ignore reasons for unacceptably high prices: better material; made in Europe; natural/organic/pure/real product, hard to find, my shop only, handmade, high cost of fuel; antique; one-of-a-kind; belonged to my dead great-greatmother; etc. Remember Rule Number One.

10. Don't volunteer information, but do ask leading questions. Avoid being drawn into tedious, off-topic conversations, but try to be skeptical and informed by inquiring about the workmanship of products, methods of manufacture, materials, and other fine details. If they dodge you ("very good! don't worry!"), it often means they don't know the answers or don't want to tell you. Honest shopkeepers, and they exist, will be forthcoming about such things. If you've shopped around, you can also tell when people are feeding you standard bullshit and when they're being honest. It happens!

11. If you want to buy, express no more than casual interest in the product you want, or better yet, in several products, only one of which you really want. Act bored but not tired. Point out as many flaws as possible, even imaginary ones. Don't enthuse about how nice it is. Don't stare at it for a long time. Be prepared to walk away without buying it if you don't get the price you want (usually half of the asking price or less depending on where you are and what it is--common items are often highly marked up, sometimes 5x the proper price, especially in tourist areas). Ask as politely as you can for price reductions--don't just feel entitled to them, or you risk offending the shopkeeper's fragile honor. Offering to buy more than one of something, or a number of things all together, should almost always procure further discounts.

12. When it comes down to settling on a price--the actual haggling--learn through experience. I can't explain this part. The usual method is to offer a much lower price than you're comfortable paying, then the shopkeeper offers a higher one, but lower than the original, then you go back and forth until you settle somewhere in the middle, both sides engaging in various forms of emotional subterfuge. It's an art and one you get better at with time and practice.

12. Remain as friendly and cheerful as possible the entire time, even if they are pissing you off. Emotional tension will not get you anywhere and will often make shopkeepers stubborn and sulky if they don't just ask you to leave. Do not say "but I saw this exact item cheaper elsewhere." It doesn't work (then why don't you just go buy it there?), and it often pisses them off. Also, try not begin haggling unless you seriously intend to buy something. You may like to price things out this way, but it's not proper form, and the shopkeepers won't appreciate it if you keep doing it. Remember that they do this every day, for a living, so they will see through your ruses easily. They will also respect a good negotiator, though, especially one who respects and doesn't offend them and doesn't force any significant breaches of etiquette. Bear in mind--they may be trying to rip you off, but they would prefer to sell at a reasonable price than not sell at all. They are businessmen first and foremost and are just trying to do business, even if it's in a way to which you aren't accustomed. The thing is, you at least have a chance to negotiate a good price and get a nice souvenir or quality product for much less than you'd pay in your own country. At Disneyland, you will get ripped off whether you like it or not: there's no negotiating in the Magic Kingdom.

13. Don't appear confused or indecisive. Avoid awkward silences.

14. If you can't get a price with which you're satisfied, then walk away. They may chase after you or give up on you. They will not entertain ridiculously low prices (especially in tourist areas where people are easy to rip off) anymore than you will ridiculously high ones. You can always come back again later. Or, if you really want the item, just accept their price, which is the consequence of really wanting something and not maintaining your detachment. Very few of these touristy souvenir shops will have items you can't get elsewhere, though. Naturally, unique products are harder to negotiate for, but stuff that every shop has, and therefore isn't as sought after, shouldn't be hard to acquire for a reasonable price. Many people leave their shopping for the last few days of their trips. I don't recommend this, because it will mean you're in a rush to buy, and you're more likely to pay too much. It's better, in my opinion, to purchase things as you come across them, when you're in a relaxed state of mind (not the "I have to shop for so and so" or "right now I am shopping" states of mind), and when it's a casual, unplanned part of your day--a happenstance. Buy if you like and don't buy if you don't. If you really do see something you like, but you don't want to pay, you can undoubtedly find something similar, or just something else, that you like just as much somewhere else. You'll get over not buying something sooner than you will paying too much for some junky thing you'll later realize isn't so important to you (shopper's remorse). You will occasionally get ripped off, but try to take it in stride--it happens to everybody, including the experienced. You will also get some amazing deals if you're patient, skilled, and a little bit lucky. The two tend to even out, and, unless you're buying real estate, you probably won't get ripped off too much, relative to your own currency.

15. Finally, once again, DON'T BELIEVE ANYTHING THEY SAY! For some reason, this is the hardest one for people to learn. As P. T. Barnum once said, there's a sucker born every minute. Try not to be one of them.


Bradley said...

Ah, I wish somebody had told us this before I went to India. As it was, I became so infuriated by the slimyness of the salesmen that I hardly bought anything when I was there. I just couldn't take it. I am weak on numerous fronts, especially being indecisive and feeling guilty for people turning their shop upside down to show me things. Rule #1 is definitely true.

I did find that doing the sideways head-bobble made me feel a little less at their mercy. . . not all westerners can pull that one off, I found. Or at least not the ones in our little group. What do you think?

The Steve said...

I started bobbling unconsciously after awhile. It does provide a nice, non-committal answer to all questions. I just hope I stop doing it before I get home, like all that bowing I kept up after leaving Japan. I'm going to be a randomly gesticulating monster after these two years abroad.