Professional Haggling: A How-to Guide to Stress-free Shopping

Beautiful shop nestled in the Arab Market in Jerusalem, Israel.

Beautiful shop nestled in the Arab Market in Jerusalem, Israel.

You’ve selfied at all the main sites, tasted the flavourful cuisine, and dabbled in learning the local language; all that’s left to do now is pick up a few mementos of your time in your new favorite country. For some, this can be a stressful part of traveling, to the point that they skip haggling altogether and head towards the familiar air-conditioned store to pick up a few knick-knacks that can be bought cheaper at the market. The thought of meandering through a maze of tiny shops while aggressive shop keepers try to befriend you and scam you out of your precious bills is enough to stop travelers from even trying to face the beast that is bargaining. While by no means a gold-medalist in haggling, I have learned a few tricks throughout my market shopping experiences around the world.

Know what you’re looking for

Endless lamps in the Cairo market.

Endless lamps in the Cairo market.

A little bit of homework goes a long way. Before I arrive to a new place, I think about things I might like to buy in advance. Is there something this country or city is known for that I simply cannot leave without? Once I’ve made a list of things I’m looking for, it’s easier to find information, such as the going price or a local place known for good quality. Shop keepers can tell when someone is in their store for something specific or if they’re “just looking.” Chances are if you’re in the latter category, the shop keeper might take advantage and try and sell you things you didn’t initially want, and that’s when you wind up a beautiful hand-crafted instrument that you don’t know the name of, can’t even play, and doesn’t fit into your suitcase.

Do your research

The markets of Marrakech, Morocco, can be daunting in its size and constant activity, but it is also full of beautiful pieces of local handiwork.

The markets of Marrakech, Morocco, can be daunting in its size and constant activity, but it is also full of beautiful pieces of local handiwork.

Once you know what you’d like to buy, tap into local resources. I’ve often asked hostel or hotel receptionists, tour guides, or local friends about a fair price for a specific item. Alternatively, if I don’t know what exactly I’m looking for yet, I usually ask about the bargaining customs. In some places shop keepers expect and respect someone who haggles, whereas other cultures may find it offensive. Depending on the place, I’ve often been told to cut down the opening price by anywhere from 20-70%, so having a starting point for haggling in advance is helpful. It also doesn’t hurt to go to a few shops and ask the price of the item you’re looking for. Once you have a few price points, you can average them out and get a better idea of a reasonable initial price. Keep in mind the reality of the local price vs. the tourist price. It isn’t realistic to assume that as visitors to a country we would pay the exact same as locals, especially in under-developed countries where salaries are completely different. Don’t be that person who stubbornly argues over pennies. At a certain point, it’s important to realize that the extra few cents or dollars won’t make a big difference to you but can have a significant impact for the shop owner and their family.

Buy in bulk

Sometimes travelers think it’s better to “shop around” and spread their purchases across a multitude of shops. If you’re looking for different items that wouldn’t all be in the same place, then this might work, but if you’re in the market for local spices and want to buy your paprika at one shop and your cumin at the neighboring place, you’re doing your wallet a disservice. The more you buy, the more you’ll save, especially when it comes to smaller souvenirs like spices, keychains, or shotglasses. Buying one won’t give you a lot of wiggle-room for bargaining, but if you pick up three and ask for one for free chances are better that you’ll get a deal. This also works well if you and your travel buddy are out shopping together. Instead of haggling for a good deal on your own, collect all the things you want and haggle for them together then split the cost between yourselves later. 

Confident kindness

After some haggling and chatting at the market in Cairo, I walked away with some beautiful Egyptian scarves and a new friend in the shop keeper.

After some haggling and chatting at the market in Cairo, I walked away with some beautiful Egyptian scarves and a new friend in the shop keeper.

Kindness is key, in life and in shopping, but being too kind can make you seem naïve and vulnerable to the tactics of aggressive shop keepers. It’s best to adopt an attitude of ‘confident kindness,’ as I like to call it, where you are friendly and pleasant but armed with research and are ready to hold your ground. I always like to learn a few basic words of the local language, like “hello,” “thank you,” “how are you.” These can get you a long way with the locals in all aspects of travel, not only shopping. While the cliché of the overly-friendly shop keeper can get tiresome, it’s in your best interest to play along. Take an interest in him, his shop, make with the small-talk, and then get down to business. Once you’ve established a rapport, you’ve laid the groundwork for a more fair back-and-forth on the price. I’ve seen many tourists angrily demand a certain price right off the bat, and this often leads to the local shop keeper getting angry, dismissive, and aggressive.

The Walk-Away

A tried and true tactic that in my experience, has about an 80% success rate. For those unfamiliar, the Walk-Away is to be used when the shop keeper is unwilling to budge. This is when you say thank you and walk out of the shop. The key here is the follow through. Do not half-heartedly walk away and stop to continue haggling. You need to commit to leaving, and to the possibility that the shop keeper might not chase after you, but more often than not, they will. When I get an exorbitant opening price I don’t even bother haggling and I leave immediately, only the find the shop keeper chasing me down the zigzagged shop-lined alleyways as he lowers his price with every step until he arrives on his own at the price I want. Voila, minimal work, maximum payoff.

Location and timing

A perfume shop and factory in Aswan where traditional Egyptian perfumes and oils are made proved to be better priced than shopping in the nearby market.

A perfume shop and factory in Aswan where traditional Egyptian perfumes and oils are made proved to be better priced than shopping in the nearby market.

Location can have a big role to play when market shopping. Chances are that shops with a high amount of foot-traffic or near the entrance to the market will have higher prices. Exploring for smaller shops off the beaten path where shop owners see less people can be conducive to finding a good deal. Additionally, I’ve found that usually not too far-off from the markets are the factories or craft workers where the items are made. By shopping at these places you’re eliminating the middle-man and getting a much better price from the beginning. If you’re buying from the artist directly, they know what their work is worth and isn’t usually going to quote you a ridiculous price. Additionally, consider how your timing can affect the price. Early morning when the shops are just opening or right before they close are the best times to bargain hunt. Shop keepers are more likely to look for their first or last sale of the day, whereas during peak hours when their shops are full of customers, they are less likely to give you the attention you need for a proper price showdown.

With these six tips you are now better equipped to join the ranks of haggling pros. Once you get over the fear and anxiety of getting ripped off by locals, you’re in a better place to tackle the challenge of shopping in a foreign country. With some experience, it becomes like a game that you look forward to, and you’ll be able to save the extra cash for things that matter, like checking out the local watering hole after a successful day of shopping.

Alicia SchneiderComment