I know that there are a ton of articles online that will tell you that haggling is important to the local culture and that if you do it properly then both parties should walk away happy and satisfied.
I disagree. Haggling over a price is a business transaction; therefore it stands to reason that one person is usually going to feel ripped off. Either you’re going to feel like you paid too much, or the local vendor is going to feel like you’re a giant, first world douche.
So how do you haggle, and keep it fair? Few long-term travellers have an unlimited amount of money, and so we take it kind of personally when we pay too much for things. This is completely understandable; however let me lay some perspective on you.
Let’s say that beaded bracelet you’re about to buy costs $3. And of that $3 that local vendor on the beach has to give about 50% to the artist or factory owner. That leaves him with around $1.50. These figures are complete bullshit, but you get the gist. Now let’s add the fact that this vendor, much like yourself, has a family. But he happens to live in a country where women aren’t encouraged to pursue professional careers, in which they earn their own income (which even in Australia isn’t equal to men, but that’s a whole other ranty story.) No, these women are only encouraged to look after the family, and clean (I’m sure their lives are more complex than this, but I’m simplifying. I definitely do not mean to offend.) Given the average size of families in most third world countries, this $1.50 per bracelet has to feed, clothe, school, and otherwise care for a large number of people. Take into consideration that in a lot of these countries, families share their good times with others around them, so you’re not just feeding a child, but a village. Doesn’t look so expensive now, does it?
On the flipside, I do believe that in overly touristy areas, vendors are starting to take the mickey a little. I get it – rich tourist, you can afford it. You can afford to fly here, stay in a beautiful resort, eat so much food, etc. You can definitely afford to buy this $3 bracelet. It makes me irk a little inside when people have this assumption of me. I am by no means rich. I live in one of the most stable economies in the world right now, and in a state where mining is HUGE money. But I’m a travel agent, and while I’m pretty great at my job, I make less than half the average in salary for where I live. I object to paying the asking price on a trinket I know is going to break in a few days anyway. So yes, I will haggle.
Generally, with me it goes something like this: I walk down a market street and see something I like. I ask how much, and then offer half. Half is a good starting point. Cue despondent tutting and fussing and exclamations by the vendor, because he couldn’t possibly give it me for that much. Back and forth we go until we reach an agreement wherein I end up paying around 75% of what he has asked for in the beginning. I feel good because I’ve kept the price down, he feels good because now maybe his daughter can go to school as well as his son.
All done with a smile.
I cannot emphasise the importance of a fucking smile. Seriously, you’re supposed to be HAPPY. You’re in this wonderful new place you get to explore. You’re relatively wealthy, and you live in first world luxury. You’re educated, loved, and have civil rights over and above those of whom live in the country you are now haggling in. The more you smile the more you will get away with when it comes to getting the price you want. Worst case, you’ll pay a little more than what you intended and you’ll end up with a new friend.
There is also something to the theory that if you shop early in the morning, or later at night then pricing will be better. I’ve certainly found that you will be offered a “morning price” if you’re one of the first into a shop in the morning. But given trading hours in places like Bali, Thailand, Malaysia et al, shopping later at night will tend to only mean you will have to contend with tired vendors, who are just as sick of haggling as you. They have families, they just wanna get home!
And, although it should go without saying, consider the quality of the product you’re buying. Locally made Batik cloth in Indonesia takes hours of hand weaving, hand dying, and then the cloth must be dried, washed, and if it’s then made into clothing, thats even longer. Consider that many hours of labour went into what you’re buying. On the other hand, if it’s a “genuine fake” watch you’re after, haggle that guy down as low as you can get away with.
If you approach your bargaining as though you are out to make a new friend, respect the vendor and his background and what that extra 50 cents will mean to him and his family, then you’ll come out like a champion. Charge in there and expect everything for nothing, and you’ll come out feeling like a champ, but looking like a douche. Up to you, but you should probably aim for champ, rather than douche.