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7 ways to haggle like a local

Ever felt ill-equipped for the task of haggling in foreign markets? These tips — and a dash of determination — will see you stroll away from souks with souvenirs at savvy prices

By Lee Cobaj
Published 31 Aug 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 10:48 BST
Silk textiles, Marrakech, Morocco

Silk textiles, Marrakech, Morocco

Photograph by Getty Images

1 // Preparation is key 
Before you get anywhere near a market, ascertain the going rates by visiting a few fixed-priced stores in the local area; this will give you an idea of the absolute maximum you should be paying. Avoid impulse buys by making a shopping list ­— and sticking to it. Stay on budget by stashing limited cash amounts in different pockets and purses — you'll also be more convincing when you shrug and claim 'this is all the money I've got'.       

2 // Time it right
In some parts of the world — China, Hong Kong and Thailand, for example — the first sale of the day is considered auspicious with sellers often dropping below the going rate to bring in good luck. Similarly, the last hour before closing sees stallholders trying to sell off excess stock, while rainy days equal low footfall and more bargaining power for buyers.  

3 // Consider a guide
Haggling in the likes of India, Egypt and Morocco can be a time-consuming process, involving long chats over cups of tea and family albums. Cut through the chit-chat by hiring a reputable guide via your hotel (rather than using one that hovers outside markets and takes kickbacks from shops). An experienced guide will have long-standing relationships with retailers and can advise on realistic prices. What you pay in fees — anywhere from around £5 an hour in India to £12 an hour in Marrakech — you'll likely save on your first buy, especially if you're making pricier purchases such as rugs, furnishings, gems or jewellery.       

4 // Act the part 
If you're going it alone, then it helps to learn a few words of the local language. Smiling is always appreciated but aside from flashing those pearly whites, look as disinterested as possible — skilled vendors can smell your desire from 50 paces away and will hike up prices accordingly. Ask about a couple of different items to throw them off the scent before casually homing in on your target buy.  

5 // How low should you go?
Being the first to mention a price puts you at a disadvantage so no matter how many times you're asked how much you'll pay, don't give in. The seller's first quote will usually come in high, sometimes by a modest amount, perhaps 15% higher at an American or European flea market to a whopping 90% over the asking price in China. Counter with 30-40% off the asking price, with the aim of achieving at least a one-third discount.      

6 // Try some nitpicking
Only ever make an offer if you're serious about buying or you'll end up insulting the seller or being pressured into buying something you don't want. It's fine, however, to politely point out small flaws such as loose threads and say things like, 'I don't really need it' or 'it's not the right colour' to reach a price compromise. 

7 // Walk on by
If in doubt, walk away. If the vendor is able to make a better offer they'll come after you, and if not, there's nothing wrong or embarrassing about going back for that must-have buy. Happy haggling! 

Round the world etiquette

In the Arab world not haggling is considered rude, while a ridiculously low offer — say 80% less than the asking price — is downright insulting. In Thailand, local people hate confrontation so keep the bargaining playful with lots of smiles. When in China, get theatrical to fit in: feign surprise and use exaggerated gestures.

Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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