Shopping in a souk can be a mystery. The guidebooks command you to bargain -- but how, without either feeling like an idiot or an Ugly American? Here are some essential tips.
1. Bargaining is a game, with rules. The goal isn't to win and leave your opponent bleeding; it's to tie, leaving both sides content.
2. Bargaining is also a relationship. Greet the seller -- and let him know if you're only browsing. If you're interested in buying, respond to his opening bid not with outrage, but polite disbelief (then cut it in half). Mention flaws with apparent reluctance, and blame any drawbacks on yourself: Well, this isn't quite what I was looking for... I wish I had that much to spend...
3. Do your homework. Know what's there before you go, and roughly what it should cost. If you know trusted locals -- not your guide, your waiter or the hotel manager -- ask what they might expect to pay. And watch how much other souk shoppers hand over.
4. Don't be in a hurry. This is a relationship, remember? Ask questions, make a joke, establish that you're fellow travelers on the planet. And unless what you're seeing really is one-of-a-kind, taking your time allows you to compare quality and prices. When it comes to bargaining, the signals given off by a customer in a hurry send the price skyrocketing.
5. Always assume the shopkeeper is proud of the goods. Open admiration and those jokes and questions are more productive than pretending nonchalance or even disdain. Beside, you won't fool a savvy salesman.
6. Be willing to walk away. Honestly willing. If you haggle for a while and begin to feel pushed, you may be in the hands of a rogue hawking inferior goods. Or it could be you don't understand what the piece is worth, and you're risking an insult. A wistful farewell to the object of your desire gets the message across -- if you then walk off. (Slowly, in case he wants to counter-offer.) See also #4 above: waiting a day to return establishes both your interest, and your iron nerve.
7. More tourists mean higher prices. On the other hand, tourists also mean more shopkeepers who accept plastic, and who can be relied upon to ship something -- a consideration if you don't want to be wrestling that carpet into a plane's overhead bin.
8. A disapproving and/or impatient partner, particularly one who clearly holds the purse strings, can be a valuable tool for the game good buyer, bad buyer.
9. Don't feel guilty about the amount of their tea you've drunk or the mountain of goods pulled down for you. You owe the shop nothing but thanks.
10. And if you buy something you love and later find it for sale down the street for less, so what? You have it, you love it, you won it in the souk: the price is a minor surcharge for the privilege of travel. There's no mystery in that.
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By Laurie R. King, author of Garment of Shadows.
Laurie R. King is the New York Times bestselling author of ten Mary Russell mysteries, five contemporary novels featuring Kate Martinelli, and the acclaimed novels A Darker Place, Folly, Keeping Watch, and Touchstone. She lives in Northern California where she is recently wrote her latest novel Garment of Shadows, which is out now.