Grown adults from the U.S. and
Canada can find themselves shaking in their boots, confused, frustrated, or even
angry when it comes to bargaining for goods in foreign countries. Itís safe to
say that most Anglos find it distasteful, yet bargaining is inherent in many
cultures around the world. Native peoples have developed this communication
skill for centuries, exchanging live chickens for bags of rice, avocadoes or
Taught how to sell by their
parents or an older sibling, it is a common event to see children out on the
streets or in vendor stalls in
Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar,
China and dozens of other countries all around the globe.
So why do lots of tourists shy
away from wrangling over the price of their souvenirs? Or Expats find themselves
overpaying for goods and services in their newfound retirement paradise? Besides
the fact that there is a large gulf between cultures on this subject, it is my
opinion that Americans and Canadians do not understand the value of the
choreography between buyer and seller.
One thing that countries in
Asia, Mexico and
Central America share in common that North America has very
little of, is the expectation to bargain for the price of goods and services.
Bargaining, a dance between buyer and seller, is integral in these cultures. It
is through this negotiation on the terms of an exchange that both participants
learn a great deal about the other person.
Is the party on the other end
of the deal a fool? Do they know value when they see it? Are they
informed about their product? Are they arrogant and abusive? Can they be
pushed around? Are they decisive? What about having a sense of humor, or
a balanced sense of generosity? Do they show respect and honesty?
This exchange of information
goes on underneath the dickering over price, and most North Americans
find it unsavory. "I want a price and I want it marked. Fair and the
same for everyone" they say, as a way to explain their sense of
equal justice. People from this culture prefer an obvious price and then
be able to make up their mind whether to purchase it then, or wait until
the item goes on sale. There is no messy emotional entanglement in this
exchange; in fact, there is no "relationship" involved at all. It is the
decision of a single person: "here it is, at this price, do I want it
However, personal interaction
is an important ingredient in bargaining cultures, and by eliminating
this unspoken, under-the-surface dialogue, there would no longer be the
dance. You would be ripping out of them an inbuilt part of their civilization that
allows them to peer inside of your person. Itís an accepted form of
communication for them. The thing is,
most tourists and Expats donít know that.
gems in Myanmar
But Iím no good at thisÖ
Dickering over price can
trigger anxieties in those who feel incompetent in this skill. Nothing can be
more aggravating than thinking you are being taken advantage of, akin to dealing
with a smarmy used car salesman. If you do not know local pricing or know little
about the product you want to purchase, then you could be overpaying. Lack of
trust or a sense of lack of control could plague you.
Bargaining How Toís
Youíre not in Kansas anymore. The best way
to meet the challenge of bargaining is to know the local pricing of something.
Just because the cost of a similar necklace, weaving, bedspread or house rental
in New York City, Toronto or San Francisco is "X," you will be going into this
situation at a distinct disadvantage if you think the first price offered to you
is the best deal you have ever heard. That amount in Dallas would be a steal Ė
the thing is, you are not IN Dallas. You are dealing with a completely
different financial economy and pricing structure.
The asking price is always
high, and reflects an out-of-the-ballpark amount that the seller dreams to
receive. To begin the bargaining process, offer him one-third of this beginning
figure. To the uninitiated, that paltry amount might seem insulting. And if you
compare that price to the prices in Miami, it would be. But the truth is,
experienced buyers and sellers realize that the counter offer is equally
ridiculous. The real price lies somewhere in the middle.
The dance has begun.
Those who refuse to bargain
while living or visiting in these cultures - completely unaware of what the
neighborhood pricing is - place themselves and other tourists at a financial
disadvantage. Because they are willing to pay 3, 5, even 10 times or more
anyone in the vicinity would ever pay, vendors who make their living by selling
begin to automatically assume that all tourists are rich; money is due to them
and is simply there to be grabbed. It is easy to think "well, it's just a few
bucks and they really need it more than I do," but that attitude will put
you in a weak purchasing position and botches the balance between you.
Prepare yourself by checking
around locally to find the cost for similar items so you know what you
are talking about. This will give you the confidence and sense of
fairness you need to stand firm on the price you want to pay. Remember,
the more items you buy, the better price you should get. Quantity equals
Once, while living in Thailand, I
commissioned my seamstress to make half-a-dozen reversible Chinese silk
robes. On the initial deal, I gave her a drawing and discussed price for
one robe. After we agreed on the timeline and the amount, I told her I
would like five more robes made, just like this one. Could I get a
discount for ordering a total of six? Smiling, she realized that she had
several weeks worth of work being offered to her and would be bringing
in a larger amount of money to her home, and she gladly marked my price
We both received what we wanted. Guaranteed work mattered
to her, and price mattered to me.
array of Chinese silk in Chiangmai, Thailand
Bargain for living quarters. Living in a
foreign country on a long term stay or as your retirement destination, opens up
the ability to also bargain for your rental amount. Renting a hotel room, an
apartment or a home from a local can present the opportunity for better pricing
if you like to negotiate. Offer to stay for a longer period, pay the rent a
couple of months in advance (get a receipt), or offer to make small repairs
yourself. This shows the landlord that you are making a good faith deal, and he
will likely offer you a better price. Not only are you helping yourself with
this transaction, you are also keeping costs in your area down for others who
may choose to live there. Itís a win-win for everyone. He gets guaranteed income
for a certain length of time, and you get a more affordable rent.
Be willing to leave the deal. To perform a
negotiation well, you have to be willing to walk away. Vendors have been selling
their wares since they have been 6 or 7 years old. They have learned to read
both facial expressions and body language, and many of them are persistent. You
might think that you are dealing with a young girl or boy, but they are seasoned
and skilled at what they do. They know the value of their goods and can read you
and your wallet well.
You might want something
terribly, but you have to be willing to leave the deal. If the vendor
calls you back, then the price you offered is considered fair Ė or at least
workable. Vendors will not sell at a loss, so if he or she holds firm even after
you have left, then you have found his bottom price. Treat it as valuable
information. You can always go back tomorrow and open the business deal again.
Donít engage unless you are serious.
This isnít a game. Vendors value their time too, and do not take kindly to your
wasting it. Do not seriously engage the bargaining process until you are ready
to purchase. If you are on your fact-finding mission of finding local pricing,
indicate such to them. Say things like "I am just looking today, thank you" or
"Iím curious, for example, what would this cost, if I wanted to buy it?" This
lets them know that today is not your purchasing day and they will not rev
themselves up for deal making. They will respect you for your honesty, and will
save their energy for another customer.
If you begin the financial
dialogue but are not sincere, you have treated him without courtesy, and have
sullied that relationship. You can fully expect to be verbally reprimanded or
old Maya vendor selling her weavings, Panajachel, Guatemala
Keeping the Financial Ecology Balanced
Indigenous people honor and
value the skill of bargaining, and they know what something is worth. Even if
they make faces or have drama with their hands up in the air, it's all part of
the play. If money is thrown at them due to what we might perceive as
compassion, the native finds himself in the curious position of wanting and
needing the money you have, and disliking you for tossing it around so
carelessly. He also dislikes himself for having taken your money without the
expected bargaining process, and a disrespectful and distasteful posture often
develops between the two cultures.
He takes pride in earning the
price he receives. How can an Indigenous person respect someone who does
not know proper value when they see it and simply casts money away like
Billy and I call this exchange
between vendor and purchaser, financial ecology. It has been our
experience that if this interchange becomes unbalanced, emotional
attitudes on both sides sour. That is why so many tourist destinations
become rip-off locations, because the authenticity between the two
parties has been lost.
Few North Americans understand
this tradition and sequence of events.
Even if you feel that you are a
horrible haggler, you must make an effort or there will be no respect
given to you. You will have placed a neon sign on you saying you are an
easy target, and unscrupulous vendors begin to congregate into the area
because word has gotten out that itís a "gravy train" at that location.
So the next time you find
yourself in a bargaining situation, take heart! Have fun! Implement the
suggestions I have made above, arm yourself with knowledge of local pricing and go