Learning to Haggle Like a Boss – A Lady Boss 

Rug shopping in Morocco

In the US, haggling gets a bad name, as though it’s crass or rude. But it’s a way of life for most of the world. Outside the US, Australia/New Zealand and Western Europe, you will haggle for everything from taxi rides to the car itself. However, even at home in the US, it’s such a valuable life skill! I may have practiced by negotiating motorcycle taxi rides in the black market, but I’ve taken those skills with me when I’ve negotiated my salary and for my Jeep.

At first, haggling was stressful for me. Why couldn’t people in other countries just set prices like we did? It always felt like so much work to buy things. Now I like it. And what’s worse, I have this crazy notion that I’m good at it.

You want how much for a lamp?! And a genie isn’t even included?

At the beginning of my travels in Bolivia, I would go to a market and wait for the shop owner to tell me the price. I’d usually start at 75% of their given price and think I might have made a reasonable deal when we agreed on 80% as a final price. I could never be sure though. It was so confusing! Oh, how naive I was! A few months later I’d start at 50% in Thailand, thinking I was doing better, but still uncertain. I had no idea how much things were worth. Should I spend $50 on a woven scarf for my mom in Nepal? Should I spend $20? Or was it $8? It left me feeling uneasy and always as though I had been ripped off.

Then, a man in a park in Singapore asked me what time it was…

He looked to be about 50 years old, maybe from India, but spoke perfect English. Asking what time it was turned into, “Where are your from,” which turned into a two-hour conversation in the park with a new friend. It turns out, his family immigrated from India and he had grown up in the US. We talked about home and life and about travel and once I found out why he was abroad and what he did, I asked him about haggling.  He now was a negotiator for a large international banking company. He had negotiated everything from silk scarves in China to major corporate deals in Bangladesh. He asked me what price I was starting at and I told him 25% – 75%. He said, “Oh no, no, no! You are starting to high, you start at 10%.”

A knock-off market in the Golden Triangle in Thailand. I do not suggest buying these.

“What, really? Won’t people be insulted?”

“No, they’ll think you know what you’re doing.”

He explained some of the finer points from there.

  1. Decide on what an item is worth to you.  The only way you’ll ever be satisfied with a purchase is to feel like you have paid a fair price for it.
  2. Check for quality. You can’t depend on name brands standing behind their product. You can buy leather goods without the faintest idea who made them. You are also dealing with sales people you will most likely never see again.  Make sure you’re getting a good product. Check the craftsmanship, materials, and overall feel.  If it feels like poor quality, it probably is.
  3. Learn what an item is actually worth in a given country. For example, often you will find shops that all sell the same thing lining a street, one right after another. When you find what you want, start haggling low and don’t raise your price fast.
  4. Raise your price very slowly, in small increments.  If the shop owner isn’t budging or the price is too high, feel comfortable walking out. If they chase after you, you know you are still in the territory of making a deal. If the owner lets you walk out, you know you have legitimately found the price that is too low for the owner to make a profit. Now you know where to start. Offer a little more at the next shop. Chances are, you’ll be able to strike a deal.
  5. Once you agree on a price, you are obligated to see it through.
A dog leaves a shop in Guatemala. I assume he and the owner couldn’t agree on a satisfactory price.

I think a difficult element of this for me, was that I always felt bad negotiating with someone who was from a poorer country that I was. I felt guilty, as though I should pay more because I’m from another country and could probably afford it.  The thing is, that gets expensive… fast. If you go out into the world with that attitude you will be ripped off time and time again.  What worse than that is, tourists who have this idea also mess up the economy for locals. A shop owner isn’t going to sell goods to a local when he can get western tourists to spend ten times as much. True, you will almost always pay more than a local, but the difference shouldn’t be extreme.

I had to get over feeling bad. It took me a while but I realized that the shop owner isn’t going to give me something out of being charitable. He or she is always going to protect their own interests first and make sure they make a profit. In the same manner, they expecting me to protect my own interests as well.  It wasn’t personal, it was business.

And you know what? The business of haggling teaches you a lot about a culture and it can be a lot of fun.  It’s different in every country! Also, you can do it with a smile and make it fun on both sides.

A leather pouf I bought in Morocco

After that lesson in the park I took what I learned to China. I went to the markets to buy a purse. I knew exactly the one I wanted and I walked an underground aisle way for a few minutes, scoping out all the stores that had the one I was eyeing. Then it was time to negotiate. It was a little intimidating at first. The Chinese are animated hagglers. They raised their voices, they appeared angry. I got exasperated and left. The shop owners not only followed me out but continued to tail me down the street; shouting counter offers. It was so dramatic it was funny and a little entertaining. I went back, determined to find the correct price. We agreed at about 25% of the original price which was in line with the price I was willing to pay. Once we agreed, I was obligated to go through with the deal. I suddenly felt a little remorseful.  Had I picked the right color? It was too late now, a deal is a deal.

As I went shop to shop in China, I felt like I was learning.  I was getting the hang of things and it seemed like I was getting better prices. True, I was traveling with my friend Mylie who is from China and speaks Cantonese and she got better prices than me. But that was to be expected. And what’s more, the price differences were less than they were at the beginning of my trip.  Slowly, the scales seemed to evening out.

I practiced this skill over the next few years, enjoying it more and more.  In Egypt, I felt like I hit my stride. The Egyptians are flattering and somewhat flirtatious. I’d be haggling over alabaster in a narrow alley and the man behind the counter would ask, “Where you get your eyes lady, your mother, your father?” I’m naturally not a very serious person so I’d laugh and we’d joke our way through the deal.  Once a deal was made they were courteous and smiled. It was fun, it made you feel like you made a friend and got some cool souvenirs along the way.

My little Egyptian rug

I did probably over pay for a small rug there, but I also learned an important lesson. It was in a huge, dark rug shop, I was trying to figure out how much a rug for my living room would cost. I found out, it was too much for me. But the shop owner wanted to show me smaller ones that maybe would be within my budget. I didn’t want or need a small rug, but he was insistent and I was a little curious as to what he had. He went to a stack about 5’ tall and pulled out one rug after another. Each time I shook my head “No thank you.” Then he pulled out one with a boxy looking little lady carrying a water jug on her head. It was so cute and charming that I burst out laughing. He knew he had me. When you react too strongly in a positive way, they always know they have you. He was so charming about the whole deal I walked out paying $20 for a rug that was maybe worth $10.  What I learned is not to react, and allow yourself to feel flattered, but don’t be charmed into paying more than you want.  But still, it’s one of my favorite things I own, so I can’t complain.

I didn’t think much about how much I’d progressed until I went to Tanzania with some friends from work. We stopped at a little shack on the side of the road to buy some souvenirs before heading home. We had a few things working against us from the start, we looked like financially comfortable tourists. We were dressed nicer than usual, we were in a newer car. I was wearing my usual jewelry which is a lot of silver.

As we shopped, I found a wooden giraffe carving I wanted along with an ebony bowl. My friends each found an armload of similar trinkets and we brought them to the corner of the shack where the man in charge was sitting.  I realized my companions didn’t have as much experience haggling much so I asked them to let me handle it. At first, the owner demanded $300 for our goods.  That was absolutely crazy. It was as much, if not more than we would pay in the US. So I startled bargaining with him. I said that was way too much and maybe should go. He said we could probably pay it. I said we wouldn’t. We both joked about what a hard bargainer the other one was. It was a fun back and forth. I asked for a discount since we were buying so much. He tried to exchange some of our items for lower quality ones. I refused. He laughed. In the end, we paid $50. The shop owner looked happy and he smiled as we waved goodbye. It was fair. It was a good deal for both of us.

Egyptian alabaster candle holder. It’s probably not the best quality but I had no idea what to look for.

I then got the ultimate compliment in that my friends thought I was a good negotiator. But the truth is, we were all just satisfied with the price we paid; the shop owner and my friends.

The moment of truth, negotiating a big purchase.

Later that year, I went into a dealership to buy my Jeep.  I wanted a Jeep Wrangler, and they are hard to come by. True, there are always a few around, but if you are like me and are particular about what you want, it’s hard to find the right one before it’s sold out from under you.  So I went looking. I test drove three or four but none were quite right. One Sunday morning I showed up at a dealership at opening because they had what I wanted. When I told the sales lady what I wanted to test drive, she apologized and said it had just been sold. What?! I was there first thing on a Sunday! Why are Jeep people so fanatical?  Then she said, “But we just got this one in if you want to try it.” I looked in the direction she gestured, thinking it’d probably be some monstrosity that was totally wrong for me.  But when I looked and saw the beautiful, deep red Jeep with big wheels glittering in the morning light, I knew I had found the one.

I believe at this moment I probably resembled the emoji that has hearts for eyes.

“Act naturally!” I told myself.  I couldn’t afford another $20 Egyptian rug type of mishap when it came to buying a new vehicle. We took the Jeep out for a test drive. I loved it more. It had the right engine, the right mileage, and ran well. I was leaving with that Jeep.  We belonged together, I thought fanatically. But at this point, no one could know my true feelings. When we got back, I sat down to negotiate. I knew what the value of the Jeep was on Kelley Blue Book and I also knew what I considered to be a good price.  This would be work. I settled into the seat opposite my dealer’s desk. I was going to be there a long time so when they offered me refreshments I took them because I needed to be on my A-game. I couldn’t risk getting hangry.

Now, I cannot tell you how many times the sales lady and her supervisor disappeared into their manager’s office. I can’t tell you how many cups of coffee I drank waiting. And I can’t tell you if they thought I was rude when I refused to budge unless I got heated seats thrown in as well.  But I can tell you, when I walked out, I got a price I considered fair.  I was satisfied with the deal we struck. I also know, they weren’t giving me this Jeep out of charity, they were making a profit. As I looked at my Jeep in the sunlight I was over the moon to take it home. Then the Manager came out and handed me his card. “You’re quite the negotiator. If you ever want a job give me a call.”

Not only did I get my dream car, but I got the best compliment a girl can get.

I guess they are flirtatious negotiators the US too.

Tonight, I’m in my apartment, surrounded by the strange trappings of my travels. A leather pouf from Morocco sits on the floor. An alabaster candle holder is on the coffee table. A silk dress I bought in Morocco hangs in the closet. A wooden giraffe is next to the lamp. A rug with a squat little woman, carrying a vase of water is near the entrance. And my Jeep, my love, is in the driveway.

All because I learned to negotiate from a man who asked me the time in a park in Singapore.  I have him and countless shop owners along the way to thank for it.

Now I know what love at first sight feels like.