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Here’s a secret: most people in the world don’t pay the price on the label.
Instead, they negotiate a better deal. They haggle.
Those of us who live in the Western world are so used to paying the price we’re told that we don’t even think to negotiate. That works okay when we’re at home – but it can be a huge mistake when you’re travelling.
If you don’t normally negotiate for lower prices in your home country, the prospect can seem uncomfortable when you first visit a new culture where haggling is the norm. Plus the fear of getting ripped off or paying too much adds stress to the equation.
The reality is haggling is a valuable skill. In many parts of the world it is a way of life.
Haggling doesn’t have to be an exercise in discomfort and failure. Approach it the right way and it will not only be enjoyable, but an amazing opportunity to practise your target language and learn about a new culture.
When I was visiting India for the first time, I used some tips that a local friend had given me to get the price of my accommodation down to about $3 per day for a beach hut. It was on the beach with a view of the sun setting over an island. The asking price was $20 per day, which is actually pretty reasonable by western standards, but obviously way more than it should have been.
I still remember the exchange – it wasn’t a standard exchange of me quoting a price and us meeting in the middle, but me trying to argue why the price should go down, and keeping a straight face when I said things like “It’s too close to the beach – how am I supposed to sleep with the waves crashing all night!”
I was firm, but friendly, and talked very regularly to the lady who rented me the place for the entire month I was there. I both made a friend, and gained her respect for not being just another white guy made of money. It was one of the things that made my trip to India so memorable.
Let’s take a look at how to approach haggling the right way. I’ll share my top tips on how you can haggle your way to great deals, language improvement and cultural immersion.
What is Haggling?
Haggling is the skill of negotiating over a product or service to agree on a price.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that haggling involves “arguing”. But don’t let the word “arguing” make you think you’ll be stuck in a shouting match with an irate vendor. The key to successful haggling is more about being persistent with your preferred price, and negotiating with a seller to find common ground. Done the right way, it can actually be a lot of fun.
Haggling has an emotional component. The seller often employs negotiating tactics to elicit an emotional response, hoping you’ll feel compelled to pay more than you want to. At the same time your goal is to soften their resolve so they will give you a lower price. Essentially, haggling involves using emotional leverage.
The word “bartering” is often used in place of haggling, and while they both require similar skills of negotiation, bartering is an exchange of services or products, whereas haggling is a negotiation for a lower price, most often paid with money.
“Why do I need to learn how to haggle?” you might ask. “No one does it where I live.”
That might be true. But being a language and cultural enthusiast, I don’t see haggling as an end unto itself. For me, haggling is a way to learn more about a culture, discover social values, and practise valuable language skills.
When I visited Egypt for instance, I didn’t haggle because I had to things to buy, but to test my ability to blend in with the locals. Haggling doesn’t have to be just about commerce. It is an avenue to an enhanced cultural experience.
Common Myths and Misunderstandings about Haggling
There are some misconceptions about haggling that I want to address before we get into specific tips and methodology.
Myth #1: You Are Taking Advantage of the Seller
Many sellers put on an act during the haggling process, like they are being taken advantage of, or you are taking food out of their children’s mouths. Hardly! This negotiating tactic plays into your fears of being a bad person. Given the “emotional leveraging” nature of haggling, they do this because it actually works, not because it is necessarily true.
Here's the truth: if they didn’t want to sell the item for that price, they wouldn’t. They are under no obligations to sell you the item if the price is too low, and you’ll learn that many vendors are more than happy to have you walk away if they aren’t getting a price they want.
Know that if they agree on a price, they are still making a profit.
Myth #2: It Is Insulting to Ask for a Lower Price
Believe it or not, asking for a better price is not considered rude in many countries. In fact, it is considered the sign of a careful consumer and prudent buyer if you ask for a discount.
This myth stems from the fear of being rejected. But in many cultures if you don’t ask for a better price it is assumed you don’t know any better. It’s an invitation to be taken advantage of.
Is this true in every country? No. So you should make sure you research the social norms in the country and culture you visit. But if haggling is an accepted way of commerce, then don’t be shy about asking for a lower price. You’re not insulting anyone!
Myth #3: Don’t Carry Big Bills
In general, as an international traveler, you should be careful not to flash large amounts of cash in public. But that obvious safety tip doesn’t mean you can’t have cash with you when you go shopping — especially if you plan to spend it.
Some travellers are afraid that, after agreeing on a price, if the vendor sees that you have a lot of cash they’ll insist on a higher price.
This pretty much never happens. They agreed on a price and they know that if they tried to increase it you just wouldn’t buy the item.
Vendors don’t mind giving you change, and seeing you have money will not cause them to rethink the sale. Just be sure not to flash your cash before you agree on a price, since that will lessen your bargaining position from the start.
Be safe, yes. But don’t try to carry exact change with you wherever you go.
Myth #4: You Have to Blend In to Get the Best Price
This myth is partially true, but there are misunderstandings about what “blending in” actually means.
First, realise that no matter how much you try to dress like a local, or wear clothes that make you look destitute, if you don’t truly know the local culture and language you’re not fooling anyone. Even wearing rags, you will still probably stick out like a sore thumb and the vendors will all know you are a tourist or foreigner.
Second, wearing brand name clothes or a nice watch doesn’t paint a target on your back. It is your attitude and ability to negotiate which has the biggest impact on the final price. Wear clothes and act as you normally do. If nothing else, you’ll be much more comfortable.
The best way to blend in? I’ve found that learning the local language and being friendly are the best negotiating tools you can have. Instead of focusing on how you look, focus on what you say and how you act.
Now, with those myths debunked, let’s take a look at specific methods to haggle your way to a great price.
8 Negotiation Tactics for Better Haggling
The following eight negotiation tactics are meant to help you make the most of your haggling experience. But first, let’s look at what your aim should be when you’re haggling. Expectations determine success when hitting the stores and stalls.
I generally have two main goals when haggling with local vendors:
Goal 1: Get to Know the Culture
The first thing I focus on is developing a better understanding of the local culture. Spending time with locals is one of the best ways to do this, and by spending time with vendors, you get exposure to their culture, society and values in a unique setting.
Goal 2: Practice the Language
My second focus is on practicing the language. This allows you to interact with locals in a much deeper way than just shopping as a tourist. You can ask questions and gain insight you may never have known otherwise. If speaking a language is the best way to improve your skill, then talking to vendors is a constant stream of exposure that will help you “level up” quickly.
You’ll notice that these goals have nothing to do with “getting a great deal” or “spending less money.” In my opinion, haggling for the sake of buying something cheaply is a secondary goal. Focus on cultural immersion and language practice to add a whole new dimension to your haggling experience.
Having an emotional attachment to saving money can dampen your enjoyment. While cost is good to keep in mind, solely focusing on money will (ironically) devalue your entire experience.
So, now that we have our goals in place, what is the first key to successful haggling?
Haggling Tip 1: The Haggling Mindset
Before we even step foot out our front door, we need to be in the right frame of mind to haggle. There are three things to keep in mind:
Enjoy the Process
Haggling is about having a good time and getting to know people. So, smile and enjoy yourself. You are in a new country and experiencing a truly authentic cultural exchange! What could be cooler? Enjoy the fact that you’re there and doing something so amazing!
Smile and Be Pleasant
No one likes dealing with a sour-faced person. Smile and build rapport with the vendor. If you are friendly and kind you’ll find they will reciprocate with the same. That way, even if you don’t get a great deal, at least you’ll have a pleasant exchange.
Be Assertive (But Not Too Assertive)
When you say a price, don’t be wishy washy. You are negotiating after all, and you need to be assertive and firm with your prices. They key is to not be so assertive that you make the other person uncomfortable (More on this in a moment …).
Haggling Tip 2: Prepare Your Mind and Body for Haggling
Haggling can be tiring and mentally taxing. You need to approach it firing on all cylinders, so here are a few tips to help make sure you’re in the best mode to get a good deal.
Be Well Rested
Being tired is a surefire way to get taken advantage of by a vendor. Your lowered brain power makes you more susceptible to suggestion and lowers your resolve. If you just flew in, give yourself a day or two to acclimatise to the time zone and rid yourself of jet lag.
Practice Makes Perfect
When you first start haggling, practice with low priced items you’re not too interested in. If the first thing you haggle for is a high-priced piece of art, then you’ll be off your game. Warm up with a smaller item where the stakes aren’t so high.
Cash is King
Don’t rely on anyone taking a credit card. Be sure you have cash with you and have a game plan if you need more money. Be aware of where ATM machines are located, and make sure you have as much money as you need. It’s also worth noting that in many haggling cultures, the US dollar is preferred over local currency.
Haggling Tip 3: Do Your Research
Just because your main goal is cultural exposure and language practice doesn’t mean you don’t need to have a product in mind. Shopping without a game plan means you may end up spending money on things you don’t need or want. If you don’t do some research you might pay more than you intended for something important.
Here are three questions to ask yourself before you head out the door.
How Much Should It Cost?
Know the normal retail value of the item you are looking for. If you start with an acceptable price in mind you’ll be less likely to succumb to pressure from the vendor. It is also a good idea to find out what a local would pay for the same item, which means bringing along a buying buddy.
What is the Exchange Rate?
Know the value of the local currency so you can understand how much something really costs. Using local money can sometimes feel like you’re playing a game of Monopoly and you can end up paying too much.
Definitely have local currency when you go to local markets! You may find some people willing to accept Euros, US dollars or British pounds, but this can't be guaranteed. If you really like something and don’t have enough local money, be honest with them and ask where the nearest ATM is and tell them you’ll be right back.
Where Should You Shop?
Research the best shopping area for what you want. If you’re looking for electronics, the local market is unlikely to be your best bet. Write down the name and address in the local language so you can show a taxi driver or get directions.
It also pays to shop at smaller, locally owned stores. Smaller businesses are more willing to negotiate prices and probably don’t get as much foot traffic as larger stores.
Haggling Tip 4: Learn Key Phrases
It’s time to make sure you can speak enough of the language to help power through some “sensitive” negotiations.
Knowing the language can go a long way towards forming a good relationship with a seller, and shows that you’re not just a random tourist, but someone who really wants to immerse yourself in their culture.
There are three types of phrases to practise when preparing to negotiate with a vendor in another language. Each type serves a different purpose.
Phrase 1: The Greeting
The first type deal with greeting someone in a friendly manner. The purpose of these phrases is to create a connection with the other person. Just because you’re there to buy something, doesn’t mean you can’t make a friend in the process. Here are some examples:
- “Hello! How are you today?”
- “What is your name?”
- “How is business?”
- “How long are you working today?”
- “What time do you finish work?”
Once again though, make sure to be aware of cultural norms. It may actually be very odd to in that place to open with a question about how the person is doing, and be more typical to simply start with asking about an item, as much as that may seem too direct in your home country.
Phrase 2: The Ask
The second type of phrase deals with negotiating a good price. The trick is to not be too assertive with your questions and statements. Instead, gently lead someone to the price you’re looking for. Needless to say you should have a pretty good grasp of numbers and how to express prices in the language too.
- “How much does this go for?” (This can be more effective than just asking “How much is this?”)
- “What is the best price you can give me?”
- “That’s a bit expensive. Can you lower the price?”
- “It’s still too much. The highest I can go is _____.”
- “Can I get a discount if I buy more than one?”
Phrase 3: The Deal
The last set of phrases help you close the deal and make sure you leave with a good impression and potential for future deals.
- “Can you make change?”
- “Do you have a business card I can give to my friends?”
- “Can I get your name so I can ask for you the next time I’m here?”
- “What are your hours?” or “When do you usually work?”
- “Thanks for your help. I’ll definitely come back next time.”
- “Have a great day!”
Haggling Tip 5: Don’t Be the First to Say a Price
One helpful tip is to not be the first person to say a price. Typically the first person to say a number will be in a weaker position since it gives the other person some leverage, especially if the first person to speak is the buyer.
If the seller is insistent that you say a price and you can’t seem to get them to say a number first, then say a price that is half of what you’re willing to pay. But again, the ideal scenario is to go second in the numbers game.
If they really don’t want to tell you their price, try a friendly joke like “You work here and you don’t know how much it costs?”. It may work, depending on their disposition and your tone of voice.
I’ve found in places like India for instance, that you need to go the extra mile and completely avoid saying a price for the entire exchange. I would give reasons for why their price needs to go down. Once you quote a number, then you will very likely be paying more than that.
Haggling Tip 6: Know Your Ceiling, and Never Break It
When you find an item you’re interested in, you should have a firm idea of the most you will be willing to pay for it. You’ve done your research so you know how much you should pay.
Make sure your first offer is far enough below the most you are willing to pay that you have room to negotiate. If the seller has first said a price, then in some places, a good rule of thumb is to offer half what they’ve specified. In well touristed places, they actually expect you to do this, so they quote something up to ten times more than what you could pay them! Be sceptical of whatever price they quote first.
Whatever you end up paying them will most certainly still be high enough to provide them a decent profit. All over the world, I’ve heard the line that the price I’m ready to pay is “below cost price for them” and that they are losing money. It’s just something they say as part of the negotiating process.
Be firm with your price ceiling and don’t go above it. If they say no, there is probably another vendor just down the way who will sell you the same item, if your price is fair.
The trick here is to be assertive, but not to the point of turning off the seller or seeming rude. Be firm but kind. You should also not be so rigid that you aren’t willing to accommodate the seller. Haggling over 50 cents on a $50 item is often not a good use of your time or energy.
Haggling Tip 7: Feign Disinterest and be Willing to Walk Away
The reality is you probably don’t truly need whatever you’re trying to buy. Your life will not end if you don’t buy it, so viewing it as an accessory and not a necessity will strengthen your position in the negotiation.
Getting excited or showing a lot of interest in something can signal to the seller that you’re willing to pay a higher price.
Disinterest can mask your willingness to buy something and the starting price may end up being lower. To put it another way, one of the best strategies to get a good price is being willing to walk away from the deal. Many a time I’ve walked away from a vendor only to have them call after me, offering the same price they just declined.
This is often practised in haggling cultures, so don’t be afraid to walk away and see if that gets you a better price. If not, the same item may be available just a few doors down.
Haggling Tip 8: Take a Negotiating Partner
Having a friend with you can often help you get a better deal. There are strategies of negotiation you can employ with a “wing-person” by your side, which can influence sellers to give you a lower price.
One strategy is for the first person to show a lot of interest, trying to convince the second person, who “controls” the money, to buy the item. This can bring the seller to the side of the first person as they both try to convince the second to buy the product, possibly bringing a lower price from the seller.
Another strategy is to have one person pretend to be in a hurry while the other tries to quickly negotiate before they have to take off. The seller may be more willing to lower if they think their sale is about to walk off.
You can also work out “secret words” ahead of time with your partner so they know if you are interested in the item and can act accordingly. For example, if you are feigning disinterest, but you actually want the item, you say a phrase like “I’m not sure it’s the right colour” to let your partner know you actually want it.
Along these lines, there’s something that my sister and her husband (then boyfriend) did as they were travelling in places like India that I thought was very clever. To indicate to him that she really liked something, she would shake her head in disgust and look disappointed at the item, while saying “Tá sé go han-mhaith. Ceannaigh é!” which is Irish for “It’s really good. Buy it!”
This way the vendor didn’t know how truly interested she was in the item and her partner would know to try extra hard to get it. Irish is a language you can be confident that is very unlikely to be spoken in Indian markets, and worked as their secret means of communicating right in front of the vendor. You could also use a sign language, Esperanto (with carefully chosen words) or any non-major language.
What is the Point of Haggling?
While it can be easy to get emotionally caught up in price negotiations, the most important thing is to remember that haggling, like any cultural activity, should be done with the intention of having fun and enjoying a new experience.
It isn’t about taking advantage of someone, nor is it an opportunity to “steal” goods from unsuspecting vendors. And on the flip side it isn’t an opportunity for you to get taken for a ride with a high price.
Keep in mind that the best part of haggling is the cultural immersion and the opportunity to practise languages, and you’ll enjoy the process much more. Yes, you might get a good (or amazing) deal, which is always fun. But I think of that as the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself.
Just remember the eight negotiation tactics that form successful haggling experience and you’ll be on the right track:
- Get in the haggling mindset
- Prepare your mind and body with proper rest
- Do your research so you know where to go and what to pay
- Learn key phrases to help your negotiations
- Never be the first to say a price
- Know your price ceiling and stick with it
- Be willing to walk away with disinterest
- Bring a partner to increase your negotiating power
Haggling can be an amazing way to get to know a new culture and language. Experiment with it, and try out different strategies until you find one that works for you.