Battling it out in souks and markets can be intimidating for a newbie. Voices are raised, pressure is laid, rip-offs commence. But it can also be an incredibly rewarding experience. Shared teas, photos of children, charades and stories of the world. It all depends on how you start. These tips are applicable for anything from postcards to Persian rugs
Top Tips for Market Bartering
1~ Smile. Let them know you are here to have fun and they generally respond accordingly. It can be challenging to keep your humor, with everyone trying to rip you off, giving you lines as cheezy as a bar pick up, and fighting for your attention and business. When that happens take a tea break and spend some time people watching.
2~ Don’t be in a rush. It’s a great opportunity to get to know local life. Being rushed is usually accompanied with impatience. Don’t leave your gift buying until the last day.
3~ Don’t change your mind once you agree on a price. It’s insulting to them if you make a deal and back out. It has to be done sometimes, you get caught up in the auctioneer-ing, but do it with as much grace as possible if you do back out.
4~ Share their chai, biscuits, and family photos. These people have incredible stories. They might even insist you come to their family home for dinner. I’ve spent entire afternoons with merchants. You become a fixture in the stalls and make friends with everyone around.
5~ Get to know prices for a few days before you buy anything. I still fall for this, to find out I paid 5 times the standard. For more expensive items, research how to pick the knock-offs from the authentic. The proprietors with the authentic treasures will be quick to point out how to pick a fake. Use their free education and ask questions.
6~ Once you get an idea of the value and you’re ready to buy, ask the vendor how much. Counter offer by at least 50%, although I’ve countered as low as 10% and won the prize at about 15% original offer. Don’t be afraid to offend them, the process is generally playful. They’ll pop their eyes, wave their arms and list off their objections to your offer. Point out you can get the item in every shop, you’ve found better prices, better quality, he doens’t have the exact colour you want, etc. Wear them down.
7~ Don’t feel like they need the money more than you do. (with discretion, I’ve willingly overpaid in the right situation) They will never sell it at a price that they lose money. They’re always making something on you or they won’t sell it. Know that whatever price you pay, these are professionals and no matter what our skill, we are no match. They do this day in and day out with rookies tourists.
8~ Know it is your responsibility to haggle and haggle hard! If everyone starts buying carved boxes for $40, we all get gouged in the end. I saw it in Marrakech, lots of ‘just-off-the-cruiseship’ groups following a guide with an umbrella perched high in the air. Opening their overstuffed wallets, dripping in diamonds and gold, shelling out without question. Don’t walk behind these ones and…
9 ~ Find out what day is cruise ship day, and don’t buy for a few days before and after if possible. Everything inflates when the merchants know the big fish are coming.
10~ Get rid of jewelry, clean clothes, any sort of embellishment. Look like you’re budget. Stash the SLR when you’re ready to bargain.
11~ Understand the exchanges well. Use a calculator if you need, every merchant has one. Have local currency split up into small bundles. Don’t pull out a fat stack after you’ve told him you only have 40 dinahs. Put it in different pockets and easy to reach small rolls. Try to pay cash as they will usually tack the credit card charges onto your purchase.
12~ Know what you are comfortable paying for an item and don’t go over that. There’s nothing worse than walking away feeling like you’ve been had. The treasure loses its shine when you look at it and remember with regret the bully that took too much of your money. If something is worth it to you, pay it happily and enjoy your spoils.
13~ Walk away. As many times as needed. I walked out 4 times, with the merchant pleading me back on an item he quoted €120. I got it for 10. It was with some resignation on his part, but he knew he lost me. If they don’t come running after you, then he won and you go back later to make your final offer.
14~ Keep in mind shipping costs. I bought all my Xmas gifts off a friend in Selcuk, Turkey. It was beautiful hand-painted ceramic, delicate Turkish lights, carved backgammon boards. The shipping cost almost as much as the goods. Next year everyone gets jewelery.
15~ Research local legalities to exporting antiques or art. I’ve heard many stories of treasures being confiscated at customs, the officials deeming the items ‘national treasures’. This isn’t proprietary to neolithic amulets, I’ve heard of it happening with street art. Fakes are fine, but don’t rely on the proprietors word that the 18th century Uzbek Suzani textiles will be approved. (My textile was questionable so I shipped it UPS with no problem)
I love the market experience. I’ve shipped home too many boxes with gifts, local clothing, textiles, jewelry, carvings, ceramics, hookahs, paintings. I love the smells, the smiles, the chaos, the donkeys, the foods, the dried reptiles, the peaks of spices. The silver, the textiles, the colors, the people, the artisans. This is one of my favorite ways to wander a city, take photos, learn the customs, and practice my patience and sense of humor. Make sure your mood matches the task and the souks could be one of your best days. Even if you’re not shopping.