Many westerners are unaccustomed to bargaining. Like most unfamiliar things, we find it uncomfortable. We frame it as a confrontation between rich foreigner and poor local; as an exploitative process to wring a sum of money trivial to us but potentially quite material to them.
But bargaining isn’t the source of this discomfort — our perspective is. Just as Shakespeare said in Hamlet “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” With the right attitude, you’ll see that this process is not, and should not be framed as, confrontational or exploitative. It can be mutually fun, beneficial, and even respectful — believe it or not, in some cultures it’s considered disrespectful not to bargain!1
So allow me to present…. Four Tips to Bargain Better, with Smiles and Laughs
1) Smile. The whole process is often a theatre.
I’ve been told tales by a painter in Tanzania of his many hungry children (he had none). I’ve been told by old woman in China ‘You are like American’ — she then comically spanked me. Both these people laughed with me about the whole charade afterwards.
2) Never start bargaining for something you don’t actually wish to buy.
It’s a waste of their time discussing the price of something you don’t even want. Ask the starting price, decide a fair ‘best price’ (perhaps by asking around for other people’s starting prices), and only when you decide you want the item from this vender initiate the bargaining by making a counter-offer.
With a smile, of course :)
3) Learn to say “You’re joking”.
This is one of the first phrases I always learn. Laughter in life is rarely as guaranteed as when you respond to their first price with a grin and a “you’re joking.” in the local language. This not only helps lighten the mood and keep you both smiling (see tip #1), it helps you get a better price.
Because people want to help those they like.
4) Walk away.
If you can’t get to your ‘best price’, be prepared for the ultimate gambit. You’ll then either hear their ‘best price’, and decide to take it, or you’ll lose out and need to look elsewhere. But in walking, you’ll have learned that your price expectations may be unfair.
Still not feeling good about bargaining?
Firstly, let’s acknowledge that you’re probably wealthier than the people you’re transacting with. So it’s totally acceptable to pay a ‘foreigner’ mark-up. These few dollars do make a material difference in people’s lives.
But paying the first price, which is often a ridiculous markup over the acceptable price (the highest I’ve seen was 1000% markup in the Serengeti) can be damaging. Not only does it drive up the price for other travellers, skewing the local economy (often unsustainably) towards tourism; but depending on the good, it will also contribute to inflation in the local economy. This makes it harder for locals working outside the tourism sector to afford any of the same products and services that travellers purchase.
Secondly, keep in mind that despite the theatrics, you have done nobody harm — even if you get your preferred price. No one would sell you something at a loss. But if you still feel guilty about driving such a hard bargain, consider just handing them extra money and telling them to keep the change. Believe it or not, because of the strange nature of human psychology, this act will actually make both parties feel better then if you had just agreed to that higher price in the first place.
So that’s it on bargaining! Four easy tips: Smile, Decide, Joke, and Walk. Oh, and one final thought. If bargaining is part of the local culture, don’t kid yourself:
The locals are way better at it than you.