Decorating Travel

Negotiating at the Souk

It’s funny how we each have our own tactics. I’m in Marrakesh for a few days right now with friends and we’ve been navigating the souks. Our group speaks English and French, and a lot of the sellers here speak one or the other too (or both), in addition to Arabic, so communication has been easy. Negotiating here is expected — even respected when done well! Sometimes we have a bit more buying power as a group since it’s a larger potential sale, but everyone approaches the deal in their own way.

I’ll share more of my trip to France and Morocco when I’m back home in Chicago and can go through my million photos, but I wanted to write about our experience negotiating here while it was still fresh in my mind.

Rugs in the Marrakech Souk

hr 644

Tactic 1
This is me. It’s pretty apparent (to me, at least) that I have a Midwestern sensibility. Too nice! Too smiley! But I’ll calculate a good, fair price and not move too much from it (all while being very polite). If you want more than one thing, that’s a good bargaining chip. “I’ll take these, but only for this much. Otherwise just one.” I won’t disparage the goods, but rather say something like “I love it, but I can’t. Not unless you can sell it for this much.”

Tactic 2
You want the item, but eh! You can leave it. If you get a good deal you’ll take it. Start low, stay low, hold that hand out to shake for a deal, but keep driving it low until the very last second. Be a bit coy, a bit flirty, but ruthless at the same time.

Tactic 3
Take a simple and straightforward approach. Start way low, and be willing to come up in big jumps between counter-offers. Be kind but somewhat disinterested, and come to a quick agreement. “All right. Can you sell it for this much? That’s as much as I can do.” Done.

Tactic 4
Feign frustration and indifference. Start way low, point out that we can go elsewhere. “I bought some like this earlier today! Everyone has these — I can get a better price.” Be ready to walk away after a lot of time and haggling, even if you really want what you’re trying to get. Be difficult and very much not Midwestern. (It was fascinating for me to watch in action because I could never do it.) When the deal was done with a handshake, the guy said “you’re tough! Like the sellers here!” with a big smile.

hr 644

Pink Rug from Morocco

We’re all far from experts of course, but it’s interesting to see what works and what doesn’t. I had a sinking feeling that I wasn’t as good of a negotiator as I could have been (“damn it, you were too nice!”), but realized in the end that we each came away with about the same deal.

We’re still here for little longer so it may be difficult for me to respond to comments, but I’d love to hear from you. Have you been to the souk before? Any tips and tricks on what worked for you?

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  • Ilse
    June 25, 2014 at 5:12 am

    I might be the same as you, or sometimes not negotiate at all.

  • Cait
    June 25, 2014 at 5:52 am

    As a Peace Corps volunteer 10 years ago, I was a very tough bargainer– I had to bargain for everything including taxis, and I loved the game of it. I’ve continued to live, work and travel in Africa and I have definitely become much less ruthless in my bargaining as I have gotten older (and my salary has increased from my volunteer stipend)! When it really comes down to it, a few dollars make a much bigger difference to the salesperson than to me.

    Before I go to a market, I usually check out a few proper shops to get an idea of what things are available in a country, and the range of price and quality. Then I go to the market and try to get about half the price of what I saw in a shop. Usually, I will look for the stall with the best quality and then buy multiples so that I have more room for negotiation. If there are a bunch of vendors with the same stuff, I will try to single out the one who isn’t being pushy and buy from them.

    I think it is always important to be friendly, firm and decisive. Don’t stand there and be angsty about something, if a salesperson sees you dithering they will try to get more out of you. Only start the bargaining process for things that you actually want to buy. You will really piss people off if you work to negotiate a price that works for both of you and then you change your mind. If they aren’t budging, then I start to move on and tell them that I will think about it and come back, then the price usually drops a bit.

    I always go to the market with enough local currency in small denominations– many deals have been closed when I pull out the cash for my highest offer in exact change. In general, local currency gives you more bargaining power than dollars since sales people don’t want to be bothered exchanging cash.

    Before I travel anywhere I always go to and print out a currency exchange cheat sheet for my wallet (look under currency converter) so that I don’t find myself struggling to figure out the exchange under pressure.

    Lastly, I always ask for a small “cadeau” (gift), when they are packing up my purchases. It never hurts to ask!

  • Jane
    June 25, 2014 at 7:43 am

    This whole thing, where people gloat over the best deal that they beat down the poor vendor, kills me! Being in a 3rd world country and you can’t pay the probably modest price for an item…really? I know it’s (the dealing) been done for ages & they have grown to expect it, but unless it’s an obvious ridiculous price, just pay, these people have to eat!

    • Beth
      June 25, 2014 at 9:29 am

      You really have the wrong impression. You’re SUPPOSED to haggle. Their prices are extremely inflated. I think you need to take a trip…

      • Sonia
        July 1, 2014 at 12:41 pm

        Vendors expect buyers to haggle because they have been dealing with local buyers. local buyers try to lower prices because their own buying power is low. When a tourist wants to negotiate I don’t have a problem with it because I think everything in life is negotiable. What I really have a problem with is seeing obviously well-off Europeans and Americans spend 1 hour bargaining down to next to nothing. What you don’t know is how small the margins are on those products and how little money those people make to feed their family. Westerners really are clueless when it comes to how others live. Those souk vendors eat meat maybe twice a month. their lunch after you leave will be tea, olives and dry bread. Their dinner will be bean soup with a few teaspoons of chopped tomatoes..These souks are not just “exotic” or “colorful”, they are full of very small businesses that barely make enough for their owners to eat. spending $20 more on a rug or bag will not kill you, you won’t even notice it. Have some compassion, damnit!!! By the way I grew up in Morocco so I have first hand knowledge of this issue, I did not read about it in Vogue…

  • Cassidy
    June 25, 2014 at 7:57 am

    I know Morrocco isn’t America, but that doesn’t mean it’s a 3rd world country, Jane.

    I’ve been to many souks in the Middle East. Bargaining is expected. If you paid first asking price for everything, at best you’d be laughed at and at worst you’d be insulting.

  • kristina
    June 25, 2014 at 8:26 am

    I was in Morocco for two weeks, and at the beginning, I rolled in with that 1st world mentality too – but after basically being given a talking to by a vendor in Fes (I’m ethnically ambiguous, and was mistaken for Moroccan a couple of times, so…yeah) I got really into it. I don’t know if I was all that much of a great bargainer, because it was always hard to shake the feeling of cheating folks for some dumb trinkets v. livelihood, but you get used to it, and it got really fun by the end of my trip. Except for the time I cried at a bus driver in broken French because I didn’t want to spend a week in the desert. Not my finest moment, but hey.

  • Melissa
    June 25, 2014 at 9:04 am

    PLEASE…….tell me you got that rug because it is AMAZING!!! :)

  • Beth
    June 25, 2014 at 9:28 am

    I was in Morocco this past summer, but it wasn’t my first experience with haggling, as I’ve been to other countries in the past where it is also the way of life. I don’t really enjoy it, because it feels so foreign (no pun intended), but definitely do it. My best haggling price in Morocco happened only because it was my last day and I really didn’t have much money left. I was looking at a blanket, the shop owner of course wanted to sell it to me, but there was no way for me to go above what I had in my wallet. In the end, he gave it to me for what I had – obviously he’d rather sell it for that than not, which means he was still making a profit, despite how he feigned being low-balled. I think one of the best things about haggling is that you not only come home with an item (or 12, as in my case in Morocco), but you have an actual experience that goes along with buying it.

  • Rachael
    June 25, 2014 at 9:30 am

    As people have said – you are expected to bargain or YOU are the one being taken advantage of, the seller isn’t going to sell something if they are losing money on it. At the same time I always kept in mind the amount I was haggling over. I was in Hong Kong realising I was haggling over 10 HKD which was the equivalent of 2 dollars back home, it made a much bigger difference to them than to me so I started to let those amounts go.

  • Colleen
    June 25, 2014 at 10:26 am

    I wasn’t particularly good at bartering, but I never felt taken either. My approach was if it’s a price you’d be thrilled to pay in the US, then it’s a good price.

    Be careful about your dirhams though! You can’t exchange them back, so you have to spend everything. We made a habit of just taking a few hundred out at a time from the ATM (the exchange rate was much better).

  • Emily
    June 25, 2014 at 10:52 am

    One of my favorite souk experiences was in Morocco with a vendor who only spoke Arabic. I only speak English and Spanish. So he put the price into a calculator and showed me the screen. I leaned in and deleted his price and keyed in mine. Back and forth we went. It was a funny exchange and I walked away with a leather purse I love and still use all of the time. Every time I put it on, I think of that funny little man and our calculator wars.

  • Anya
    June 25, 2014 at 10:54 am

    I’ve had a fair amount of experience bargaining (Asia, Morocco, other places), and the biggest thing to come away with is: are you happy with the price you paid? I agree with the advice above, that bargaining is expected, and that it can actually be pretty fun. And you should be willing to walk away from the stall if they don’t meet the price you are willing to pay. It’s the same type of mentality we use in the US when buying a car or a house (negotiating back and forth). Don’t be scared to do it and don’t be too nice either ;)

  • megan
    June 25, 2014 at 10:58 am

    My husband is from Morocco and he would die before purchasing something that he didn’t bargain for.

    Keep in mind – prices for you double or triple because you are a foreigner. Marrakech is full of folks there to get the most out of you that they can – it’s just the way it is. Inject some drama – they expect it – and shop around before buying. Don’t show enthusiasm for any object.

    If you find someone with good prices, buy as much as you can from them. Marrakech is probably the most expensive shopping city in Morocco, but there are still deals to be had!

    The carpet souk is really nice and they have amazing jewelry too. Stick to items made in the south of Morocco, they will be cheaper than Northern items. So silver jewelry which is made on the coast, babouche, carpets, etc. Good luck!

  • Laura
    June 25, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    I remember a long time ago visiting Sri Lanka with my family – my stepmom is from there originally, so she served as the chief bargainer. We had to wait around the corner while she bargained, otherwise if they saw us the prices would magically be inflated. Fun times. :)

  • Noelle
    June 25, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    My efforts at bargaining are laughable, but I always try. Generally I cave because I really want the thing and they can see it in my eyes.

    My mother-in-law on the otherhand is a master. I once saw her haggle with the Neiman Marcus jewelry department and while I was initially embarrassed, it turned out they actually took her seriously, so joke’s on us who are afraid to seek a bargain.

  • kate
    June 25, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    I’ve never been to a souk so I don’t know souk etiquette but I don’t haggle at garage sales, I think it’s insulting and demeaning. So I gotta agree with Jane. As a very privileged American pay what they want. Yeesh!

  • Lora
    June 26, 2014 at 8:02 am

    NEGOTIATING, just the title alone had me excited! What a fun, light, post on navigating a shopping experience abroad. Is negotiating a gender issue? Also, to think of “Americans as privileged” over the sales people at a Souk market is downright snobbish and completely uncultured.

    As a business owner, I negotiate. In turn, I expect it from my customers and clients as well. Not so much in the day-to-day smaller sales, but large scale or group orders. I refuse for this post to be ruined by the comments section.

  • Janine
    June 26, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    I did a tour of Morocco years ago, and I visited a lot of different souks. Bargaining is mandatory! I could afford to pay what the vendors were asking (generally) but it was very clear that the stated price was NEVER the real price and the vendors were ready to talk business. If I just paid up, it was kind of a disappointment for everyone.

    I negotiated for shoes, clothes, pottery, metalwork, two door knockers (the hands) and wooden jars.

    I did NOT negotiate over food, that didn’t seem to be the done thing. I ate a lot of different food while I was there (junk food, traditional food, high end restaurant food, French food, street food) and always paid what people asked.

    I honestly loved Morocco, I felt very safe there EVEN THOUGH there had recently been a terrorist bombing at an internet cafe, and would love to go back.

  • Rita
    June 26, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    I’ve never been but would love to. I don’t think i’d be able to bargain for anything though. It’s a concept that really puts me off especially in a place where I have no notion of how much something is supposed to cost. I’d like to travel with a local or someone who does it really well so I could learn from them :)

  • Sara W
    June 27, 2014 at 7:59 am

    I was in Thailand a few years ago and there seemed to be an expectation of bargaining there too. This is not something I’ve ever been particularly comfortable with but there was one occasion when I decided to be bold and hardheaded about an item in the market that I wanted. It got quite heated between me and the vendor and I was about to walk away when my husband nudged me to tell me I was arguing over $.25. I felt so ridiculous. I think I was quicker to accept the asking price from that point forward. And figure out the currency conversion before trying to automatically lower the price.

  • Catherine
    July 2, 2014 at 6:18 am

    Great post! I’m half Chinese and it’s been ingrained in me to strike a hard bargain, but haggling mortifies me. I wrote a couple of tips on my blog about how to bargain when you don’t know what you’re doing

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