Hints for haggling

This item appears on page 15 of the May 2011 issue.

Bartering may be viewed as an unpleasant chore, but the exchange offers the opportunity to connect with local people. I have experience at bargaining in India, South America and numerous Southeast Asian countries, but traditions differ in other parts of the world. I have haggled successfully using the following advice.

Know what you want. When I arrive at a destination, I observe local products, study prevailing prices, compare quality and listen to what others have paid.

Know where to buy. Ask your hotel or guide. Be aware that guides or taxi drivers may get paid for taking you to particular stores, so decide independently. Vendors on foot, especially those away from hot tourist areas, can beat prices in open markets. Go only where you can negotiate; avoid places where prices are fixed.

Shop near the end of the day when sellers are more amenable to unloading merchandise. If you’re in a port of call, purchase close to the time you leave, as the vendor will be motivated.

Carry small bills. Separate them in your pockets to avoid confusion. I use a small travel shoulder purse with many pockets. I fill each with a different set of denominations. For example, I carry the smallest bill in the lowest pocket. For most transactions, I open only that pocket and pull out only the bills needed. Never do I show the bills I carry.

Stroll around looking at variety and quality. I find this technique helpful in open markets. Walk away. Think. Pass a second time and ask prices at several booths, all the while making mental notes on the merchandise you want and whom you would like to do business with. Never show that you like something too much. Always say “Thank you” and continue on. Don’t enter into a wrangling discussion. If you are pursued, repeat, “Thank you. I may be back.”

Formulate what you want and what you will pay. Once I do this, I find one vendor and plan a strategy for buying in multiples or buying several different items.

Approach the vendor you select and ask again, “How much?” Insist that the product is cheaper down the way. Let the vendor come down in price, and when it is sufficiently low, throw in your secret factor: you’re buying in pairs or multiples. Say, “I’d consider getting two for __.” If the vendor still won’t come down, say, “I’ll get three for __.” Your last resort is to suggest another item to be thrown in to make the deal.

In a village near Quito, Ecuador, in October ’10, I circled the booths inspecting the merchandise until I found a stand and an attendant I liked. I then went back and bought four items for $18: three vibrant alpaca shawls and a fourth of about half the size, which functions as a neck scarf.

While bartering is a business transaction, in many ways it’s a “people process.” I appreciate the items I’ve purchased and the deals obtained, but I remember most the people I bought them from.

Sacramento, CA