Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’re on vacation, browsing through a Middle Eastern bazaar or Caribbean marketplace. All of a sudden you somehow find yourself in a hut filled with poorly made trinkets having tea with the shop owner himself. He asks you where you are from, tells you about his cousins in your home country, even introduces you to family members who have “hand crafted” the goods on display. You feel stressed. You know where this is going but are powerless to make it stop. And before you know it, BAM! You’re walking home with yet another outrageously priced, Chinese made African mask that you don’t even really want. If this has never happened to you, you can stop reading now.
For the rest of you, here’s what happened: You got played. And here’s the game: As a shop owner invites you in for tea and asks about your family etc., they are cultivating a type of “relationship debt” with you. You’ve accepted their invitation to come in, you’ve accepted their free tea or snack, they’ve asked you about your family and yet you have nothing to offer in return. Strangely, you feel like you owe them something And, they just happen to have that “something” at a price “just for you”! In short, you felt bad, got suckered into buying something or paying too much, and now you feel worse. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
That’s the problem. So what do you do about it? Here’s a technique I’ve used to get great deals without feeling the slightest bit of stress, even in the toughest bazaars of Cairo and Istanbul.
1.) Do your research first. I set a time limit (usually 30 minutes) when I walk into a bazaar or market where I only allow myself to look at what’s on offer and ask about prices. I don’t just wonder around aimlessly; I actively look for things I might like to buy, ask about prices in many different shops and even ask other customers what they paid and where. But, I never buy during that time, no matter how good the deal, or how insistent the salesperson is. This gives you two things, a sense of fair market price and a concrete sense of your alternatives, to use when you decide to negotiate for something you like.
2.) Level the relationship playing field. Don’t let them build that relationship debt. Instead, build one with them. When they pull you into their shop, ask them about their life, their shop, their country etc. Have tea with them and be generally interested in them, their business and their life. View the interaction as a social exchange, not a financial one. When it comes time to negotiate, you (and they) won’t feel like you owe them anything at all. If anything, it’ll be the reverse. By doing this I’ve been given tea, snacks and even small gifts at a number of bazaars without buying a single thing, and without feeling pressured at all.
3.) Express interest in them; admire their products. If you show interest in any one product, you open the floodgates to haggling. Devaluing a product you like, on the other hand, is unlikely to fool savvy merchants. It’ll only ruin the relationship you’ve just built. Instead, be interested in them, and admire the products on display. Make sure to highlight the quality of a range of goods, casually inquiring about their price, without showing a particular interest in any one.
4.) Don’t be afraid to walk away. If the salesperson’s final offer is worse and/or more expensive than what you saw in your research, for heaven’s sake don’t buy it! Go back to one of the alternatives you saw in step one and try again. This time, saying “no, thank you” will be much easier without the “relationship debt”, and if you know exactly what you’re walking away to.