Who loves a good souvenir? Who hates spending an arm and a leg on purchasing said souvenir? Bargain shopping while abroad can be one of the most fun and satisfying things you do during your travels. Why? Because even though, when you do all the monetary conversions, you’re not paying that much in dollars, you want to get a fair price for where you are. Plus, who doesn't love a challenge?
I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve gone shopping in India and come home with what I think is a great deal (i.e. I spend 11 dollars on a hand-carved stone elephant) and my aunts and cousins are immediately like “you overpaid!”
The issue with being a foreigner is that you’re a target for scams and cheats. While at the end of the day it may not amount to a lot of money for you in your own currency, you don’t want to continue traveling with unfair deals. This is especially true on long trips as your money will run out super fast. Plus, the whole point of shopping abroad is to get authentic items, locally made and sourced, that the locals themselves buy. In this case, you should also pay the same as the locals and get the same deals.
What does bargain shopping entail?
When I speak of “bargaining” I mean “haggling”. This means that you don't have to, nor should you, pay the price you are given. Not all areas allow for this, but for those that do, it's important to know how to bargain with shop owners. There are techniques and know-how to doing it properly and getting the best deals possible, which is what this blog post is all about.
What can you bargain for?
If you're in an area that allows for bargain shopping, you can price haggle for any item being sold there. This includes food, clothing, accessories, and decorations. The exception to this is food items being sold at food stalls for you to eat; other food stalls selling spices or packaged goods, you can try your hand at bargaining. Shop owners may deny you, so in those instances, you won't be able to haggle, but it never hurts to try!
So how can you try for the best bargain?
I’d like to share some general “rules of thumb” when you go bargain shopping in foreign countries. Of course, if you’re in love with an item and can afford it in your own currency, and are willing to pay, then go for it. Bargaining for a better price, in that case, is less of a concern as your focus will be on obtaining what you want. I don’t think there’s a replacement for something you love or can see yourself actually using. But for all those other items that you’re interested in, that looks cool, or small items that you are trying to purchase for the purpose of gift-giving, you should bargain.
A big part of looking for deals, and getting them, is knowing where to shop and also HOW to shop.
First rule: Ask the locals where they go
The key phrases here are, “where are the popular local markets?”, “which markets are best for souvenirs?”, and “which markets will allow me to bargain?”. You want to find anything related to markets, night markets, weekend markets, etc. These markets are generally set up outdoors with stall after stall of random commodities. The beauty of these markets is that if you like something at one place, and the shop owner won’t bargain with you, there’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll find the same item in another stall.
In other words, you don’t have to get stuck in one place.
Second: Be nonchalant
Don’t act too interested. If shop owners know you really like something, they’ll be less willing to negotiate down on price. They know that you’ll eventually cave if you show a lot of interest.
Third: Know where to start your haggling
Ask the price and expect it to be at least double of what they would offer a local. Yes, double (even triple depending on the item and how interested you are). A good place to start is at half of what they ask, and don’t be afraid of offending them. Think of how offended you are that they are overcharging you!
Another good way to go is to calculate how much they are asking in your own currency. If it’s higher than you’re willing to pay, then figure out in your head what you WOULD pay. Then, take that number and start a bit lower with your bargaining.
For example, the hand-carved stone elephant I purchased in India: their starting price for me, in their local currency of Rupees, was about Rs 1200 (approximately $18); I did the conversion in my head and decided that I would pay no more than $12, which translates to Rs. 840. Thus, I started my bargaining point at around $8, or Rs. 560 (if I remember correctly, my actual starting point was Rs. 500). At the end of it, I walked away after paying Rs 800, or $11.
As you can see from my starting point, it is a little less than half their original asking price. So you can jump to that, or do the calculation in your head as above so that you have a range that you are comfortable with. Of course, the price you decide that you're willing to pay is also contingent upon what you perceive is the value of the item you are buying. If you think it's a great piece and worth paying a little more, then your job becomes a bit easier and the whole process will be faster.
Another thing I'd like to point out is the savings. In our dollar currency, the amount saved isn't all that much; however, in the local currency, I saved a total of Rs. 400. In India, Rs 400 can go towards a meal, public transportation, or tickets to an event. So for purposes of maximizing your cash when you travel, bargain shopping for those few American dollars can actually go a long way.
Fourth: Bundle items for a better deal
Many shop owners will be more willing to bargain if you tell them you’re buying more than one item. I like this technique when I see that they, for whatever reason, are unwilling to budge; in this case, I’ll take a look around and see what else I can get, and ask them to ADD something and then I’ll pay the price they’re asking.
Back to the elephant, if they are stuck on a price of 18 dollars, then I would add another item, a fan/pen/pendant/wall hanging, whatever I can find that is of interest, and say “ok, I’ll pay 18 dollars if you include this item”. If you can't find anything else of interest to you, then I recommend purchasing two of whatever it is you are bargaining for. The extra can serve as a gift for someone else!
Fifth: Just give the amount of money you’re willing to pay
I have actually done this. Sometimes shop owners get really stubborn, and I, too, am unwilling to compromise. So what I have done is just take out the exact change for the price I wanted to pay for the item and handed it to them and said, “ok, done”. And it worked!
If this sounds strange, just think about it. It is hard for a shop owner to turn down cash in hand. They will not be running after you to return your money just in order to demand more.
Sixth: Walk away
This is very important: don’t be afraid to walk away. If they are being ridiculous or uncompromising, remember, there’s another stall probably not too far away, or even another market you haven’t explored yet, that has the same product. Half the time, when you start to leave, they’ll call you back. Keep walking and wait for them to drop the price.
If they call you back, then stop and turn around, and repeat what YOUR price is. If they disagree, turn back around and walk. More often than not, they will call you back and give you what you want.
This goes hand in hand with not being too interested.
Seventh: Try to shop with a local
If you know someone living locally or have a tour guide willing to help you, then definitely utilize those resources. First, ask them what the typical cost, or fair price, is of consumer goods and souvenirs. You can use their feedback as a starting point and as a way to vet different shop owners. For instance, if a seller gives you an exorbitant price as compared to what you were told to expect by your tour guide, then you know to just walk away; don't even bother bargain shopping with that seller.
Even better is if you can get your guide to help you with the bargaining process. You’ll get much better deals as they'll be able to help you with pricing the items, and shop owners will know that they can't get away with cheating you if a local is on your side.
I do recommend that you exercise some caution with this approach. Even if you ask for help, be sure to still follow your own instincts. I have heard of several stories detailing how shop owners and tour guides sometimes work together. In that case, it is in their best interest for you to pay a higher price, with them splitting the profits.
So, if a deal doesn't feel right or you think something is going on, then just walk away. You are not obligated to purchase anything just because a local is helping you.
Eighth: Do your due diligence
Make sure you inspect the items you are purchasing very carefully; remember you are a target, and there’s no return or exchange policy at these markets. Before you make an offer or start the process, do your inspection. Look for defects and determine how you feel about the quality of the item. Sometimes finding a small defect can help with your bargaining and you can use it to further drive down the price (assuming that its a defect you are okay with having).
Sometimes, based on how you feel about the quality, your willingness to haggle will shift, and the price you are willing to pay will change. Again, trust those instincts.
Ninth: Don't pay until you're certain
Even after you come to a conclusion with your bargaining and settle on a price, do a quick mental check that you really want and are comfortable with what you're paying. As I mentioned before, there are no returns, exchanges or take-backs. I've been in many situations where I've regretted my purchase after the fact. In each of those instances, I was not 100% sure about the price or the item.
Nothing is final until you pay; so do not pay unless you are certain.
Bargain Shopping Final Notes
Be on the lookout for scams. Basically, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. In addition, if someone claims to have “great merchandise” and they start leading you into an alleyway, or some stand-alone warehouse…don't go. Listen to your instincts and play it safe. No local product is worth it, no matter how much of a bargain they promise you.
Don't make promises
I mentioned this earlier as well, before you pay, examine your merchandise. You are getting it super cheap, but that doesn't mean the quality has to be bad, or that you have to put up with defects. Also, don't promise to buy anything until you've seen it and touched it. Don't hand over money until you've had a chance to do your due diligence.
Protect your belongings
Many of these bargain shopping markets are crowded, and in a third world country, many are poor. Take care of your wallet. Don't hold anything out for people to grab; don't keep your wallet in your back pocket; separate your money–keep some in your wallet, some in your front pockets, some at the bottom of a bag.
Hand in hand with protecting your belongings is leaving all your valuables in your hotel safe, and avoiding fancy clothes. The richer you look, the more likely it is that you will be scammed.
I'd also recommend that you wear comfortable closed-toe shoes. In a crowded market, you will get stepped on. In addition, the location of some of these markets is on side streets and alleys that are not paved and full of potholes. It's not fun. Your feet will thank you.
Count the money
After paying for an item, if you are expecting to receive any change in return, count what you are given back and make sure it is correct. I've caught many mistakes that way. It may not translate to a lot of money for you, but it is your hard-earned dollars and you want it to go as far as possible when you travel, so be diligent and watchful.
Make sure they wrap your purchases for you properly. You have to travel with your items back, and you don’t want things falling apart, or to lose pieces of your purchase. If they don’t make moves to wrap your items, ask them to. They should not charge, and you shouldn't pay, for good packaging. All of that should be included in the price of your souvenir.
Have fun with it
Many shop owners abroad thoroughly enjoy meeting tourists. If you encounter some that are friendly and inquisitive, then go with it. Get to know them, crack some jokes, ask questions about their merchandise and how its made. Your curiosity may get you a better deal AND you'll likely learn something about local culture. Plus, you'll make that shop owner's day. A win-win.
Your first bargain shopping experience may be scary, but once you've made that first purchase, you’ll realize how much fun and satisfying it is. As you keep doing it, you’ll get a sense of what is fair pricing and what isn’t. You can just expect to overpay the first couple of times (by local standards) and that’s ok, you’re learning. Hopefully, with practice and these techniques, you’ll get to shopping like a local!