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One comment on “The art of bartering – A South East Asian tradition”

  1. A great story. Next to seeing the ancient wonders of Asia, interacting with the people, eating local foods, bargaining is the greatest adventure and reason I can think of for going to Asian nations. Yes, the key is to keep it fun, laugh and smile. Never, ever get mad and very serious about the process. It should be enjoyable.

    I have many stories of bargaining in Asia and here are but a few of them:

    When I go to an Asian nation, I go with my list of things-to-buy already made up. As for how much to pay, I generally begin at 50-60% less than what is asked. That gives some wiggle room. If you offer only say, 20% less than asking price, less room to bargain. Also, if you don’t try bargaining, some vendors will consider you a sucker, stupid foreigner. I even bargain where the signs says, fixed price as generally it is not. So don’t be swayed by their signs. And never trust anything to be an antique as real antiques require special export permits or may even be illegal to export.

    Also, do not buy the Gucci or Rolex counterfeits or similar items as US customs will confiscate them. Of course you don’t have to declare them but is it worth the price you will pay if caught?

    Sometimes, I even offer less than 60%. The key is to watch the vendors reaction. If he-she gets an angry or disgusted look then you started way too low. They are thinking that the price is an insult, ridiculous. Be careful to see if that reaction is real or part of the great bargaining game. Often it is difficult to tell.

    Generally, starting out at 50% is a safe bet to start the bargaining process. However, consider it a game and be sure you make it a win-win situation as much as possible.

    When first offered the price, I use various ways to show shock at the price. Once in the massive, weekend market in Bangkok, I was trying to buy some awesome, metal bookends. When offered the price, I grabbed my heart and fell to my knees. The lady was in shock but I slowly got to my feet and said that her price was such a shock. When she saw that I was kidding, she laughed, offered a drink and the bargaining began in earnest.

    Another technique I use is to say no, if I paid the price you asked, my wife and child (at the time our eight year old son was with us) would go hungry with no dinner as I would not have any money left. But, you must say that with a smile. Once I was even offered some food by the vendor if I paid the price. I had to laugh at that one as he quickly caught on to my joke. We laughed and got to bargaining in earnest.

    In that same market, there was a great looking Laotian lady who appeared to be about 85-90 years old, teeth stained black from chewing beetle nuts for years, her favorite snack. She was selling a great, Kuan-yin statue and also a Laotian, hand-made tribal knife. After much bargaining, she would not budge on the price. I walked away and came back twice, having used all the bargaining techniques in my arsenal. I finally paid her asking price. The one and only time I couldn’t get the price down. That old lady was so cool and a joy to bargain with, wearing her native clothing, that I didn’t mind.

    It was worth it just to see her smile and show all her black, beetle nut stained teeth as I thought of her as the classic old lady from Laos. Someone, who would soon be gone and probably not many like her left. So, even today I cherish that time with fond memories of the lady who kicked my bargaining butt!

    In China, I wanted to buy a silver pagoda statue made in Tibet. After much bargaining (always in English), we were down to the last yuan, when I began walking away. The vendor ran after me and said ok. I got it at 50% of what was offered initially. I normally don’t end up with that low a price but the item was, I think, way over-priced. We closed the deal in Chinese which shocked her and her sister. (Never speak the native language when bargaining until done. If two vendors there, they will talk in the native language and you can listen in on their discussion of price that gives you albeit unfair but an advantage.)

    The key to bargaining in China is that the merchants believe that the first and last customers bring good luck. That is what I heard anyway. Not being an early riser, we hit the stores 30 minutes before closing time. One technique is to check out the stores that offer items on your list. Don’t go in until you are ready to buy. Generally, we buy the day before we leave to avoid collecting things from different places piecemeal. Bargaining power comes in volume buying.

    Another key to lower prices is to bargain for one item. Then, once that deal is settled without you not telling the vendor it is settled. Then you ask the prices of other items. After you know those, then you really start to bargain when making multiple purchases. For example, you bargain for a t-shirt but you need to buy four. Bargain for one, and then bargain for lower price for buying two, then add another and another and with each getting the price down. When the vendor starts getting angry and you see it is not for show, then time to stop, and complete the deal.

    And yes, you may find others who have gotten the same item at a cheaper price, but so what? You bargained, enjoyed the experience and got the item for a price that you considered fair. Never regret the price you paid if you paid more. Just consider it the price of the bargaining entertainment.

    A couple other things to keep in mind: If you a taken to a shop by your tour guide, expect in general to pay a higher price.

    Also, if you see someone selling little trinkets and especially if a very old person, buy one as that will buy their dinner for the night. A small price to pay maybe equivalent to ten cents. I did that once in China and after bargaining for some cheap pendant on a string of Buddha on one side and Mao on the other – talk about a contradiction – I bought several. She was so happy that she went to another vendor and bought me a gift of a cheap bracelet. I never had that happen before or since. She was so grateful and I told her no, I would not accept it but she insisted and I felt bad by taking it but I did and she smiled and shook my hand. A sweet old Chinese lady and another great bargaining experience.

    Beware of beggars-sellers, and for sure in China. They often have women working in shifts holding a baby or little kid holding their hand looking ragged. You will see the same baby or child but being led by another woman later in the day. It is an organized group. Also beggars with no legs and maybe no arms. Again, hired by a organized gang to collect money for the “crime syndicate”. Generally, to those missing limbs, I give anyway. After all, what is done with the money, it is the thought that counts for me and they will at least get some of it and can survive as Asians tend to look down on those that are disabled as having done something wrong in a past life to be born to suffer in this life.

    By the way, I have found that you can even bargain in the US. For example, we have a sat. TV subscription and they had a sale for new subscribers. I called and complained being an old time subscriber. They wouldn’t offer me the sale price but gave us 12 free pay-per-view movie certificates.

    The bottom line is this: Bargaining is the greatest sport of Asian as far as I am concerned. Do it, enjoy it and don’t take any of it seriously.

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