To do it right takes planning, practice and patience. You want to avoid a faux pas such as haggling in a Parisian boutique, which will probably get you shown the door tout de suite. Here are some tips for bargaining like a pro.
Know where bargaining is appropriate. In Laos and Mexico, it is. In Japan and Sweden, it is not. In the Middle East, it’s so much a part of the culture to haggle that it can be exhausting. It’s easy to quickly research whether haggling is a do or don’t in a specific country. Even in countries where haggling is the norm, however, don’t expect to do so in supermarkets, shopping malls or branded boutiques with fixed prices. “You don’t bargain for steak or eggs at the checkout line in Morocco,” says Salvador Ordorica, chief executive of the Spanish Group, an online document-translation service. Do expect to bargain in marketplaces, bazaars and independent artisan shops.
Educate yourself. If you have a purchase in mind, get an idea of what people are paying for that item before leaving home. That gives you a frame of reference, says Jeff Moriarty, who has traveled to more than 35 countries in the past 10 years as marketing manager for Moriarty’s Gem Art. Review Tripadvisor comments, do an online search for “product + country” or, for example, type into a search bar, “What should I pay for a real leather bag in Bali?” You can also check out private online travel groups and forums.
Research a city’s main markets. Find out what each specializes in. Once you do, note any “special” or “main” days, such as the first of the month or Sundays. Those days are typically when you’ll find the best deals, Moriarty says.
Set a budget. You might establish a gambling budget for a Las Vegas getaway; do the same for shopping internationally, says Miami-based Maria Dominguez, a shopaholic who retired from British Airways after 43 years. Haggling can be somewhat addictive.
Learn how to negotiate. Webster says the key to successfully haggling is to understand the process. The line is, “Tell me your best price”; then you begin, she says. “And you have to be brave enough to counter a silly inflated offer of $60 for an item worth $20 with a $10 offer. In other words, your first counteroffer has to be lower than what it’s worth or what you are willing to pay, so that there is room to haggle up to the price you will pay.”
Don’t buy on Day 1 or 2. Instead, walk the markets and stalls to get a baseline by casually inquiring about items and prices. Or, if a marketplace has a mix of shops, first check one with fixed prices. This gives you an idea of what the items are worth before you start bargaining. “In Bali, I was looking for a traditional silver harmony ball necklace,” Webster says. “Initially, I went from place to place asking the price and walking away without engaging. The range was from $10 to $30 U.S. Then, I found someone who started at $15. I countered with $4. We both agreed that the other was ridiculous, so we started again. He offered $9. I ended up paying $7.”
A little cultural sensitivity goes a long way. Learn a few words or phrases — hello, please, thank you — in the local language. “Always greet the salesperson in their own language,” Ordorica says. Even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect, they’ll recognize the effort. Show some interest and curiosity about their culture, too.
Cash is king. Exchange dollars for local currency, and always use cash in a marketplace. Carry small bills. This helps you avoid the ruse that the seller has no change. Look up the current conversion rate (use the XE Currency or My Currency Converter apps), so you know what an item costs in U.S. dollars. Credit cards are a no-no unless it’s for a high-ticket item in a well-established shop. If you do feel comfortable using your credit card, you will probably be asked whether you want to pay in dollars or the local currency. Ordorica says to choose the latter. “By paying in the local currency, your bank sets the conversion rate and not the merchant, which is almost always the better rate.”
Dress down. “Leave the bling behind. The minute you ask how much, the merchant is going to look you over and then set a price,” says Sharon Geltner, chief executive of Froogle PR in Palm Beach, Fla., who shops extensively in the Caribbean, Middle East and Mexico.
Show respect. Yes, haggling is a game, but this isn’t poker. You don’t bluff, and it’s poor form to say you’ll accept a price, then walk away. “Ultimately, it’s your choice, but as a courtesy, if they accept your final price, then you should buy it,” Dominguez says. And be reasonable. Don’t be afraid to bargain when appropriate, but don’t bargain for a $3 scarf. If something is inexpensive, don’t grind the seller for a few cents.
Be mindful of body language. “You can tell if a person is not receptive to bargaining if they cross their arms, turn away or raise their eyebrows. Either change your approach or consider it a loss and walk away,” Ordorica says.
Curb your enthusiasm. You cannot show any emotional connection to the item you want. “If they sense you have fallen in love with a specific piece, they will quickly shift to why that one is the most expensive,” Webster says.
Use multiples as a negotiating tool. You may get a greater discount if you buy two or three items from the same seller. Webster used this technique for buying several hookahs in Dubai. “I visited a traditional grocery store and saw I could buy them for $20 each,” she says. “Then, I went to the marketplace, and when I found some that caught my eye, I haggled with a vendor and walked away three times. Eventually, I paid $15 each for three.”
Just walk away. This may be the toughest tactic, but it’s the most important, bargaining experts agree. Geltner advises using it if you are trying to find out whether the shopkeeper has reached their rock-bottom price or to end negotiations. “Politely say, ‘Thank you,’ and exit the shop. This is crucial. No matter how much you want a given object, always be prepared to leave. If the proprietor signals for you to come back, turn around doubtfully and slowly walk back a few steps to see if she is serious. If she is still not ready to make a deal, exit once again. If she follows you and says, ‘I accept,’ that means the bargain has been struck. Success!”
Daily is a writer based in Denver. Her website is dailywriter.net.