In hindsight, my over-enthusiastic attempt to negotiate the cheapest possible price for a wet shave in Pakistan was foolhardy. If you’re going to expose your neck to a man brandishing a cutthroat razor, it’s probably best to go with his first quote.
Many tourists believe the more you pay for something, the more you’re helping the local economy, since the money circulates within the community. But it’s also reasonable to point out that all those copy-watch sellers, sarong traders and gem dealers are in your face precisely because holidaymakers were paying over the odds long before you arrived on the scene.
It’s unfair to blame the hawkers. They can pocket more from one astute sale than might be earned toiling in a factory or field for a week. This can have a knock-on effect, though. Farmers in tourist areas may have trouble recruiting workers at harvest time as there are such easy pickings elsewhere.
Here are some suggestions that could help to make the encounter less like a visit to the dentist:
1 Haggling over the price of anything from a shave to a sheep is still the accepted way of doing business for many people around the globe. However, it often flusters and embarrasses people from the developed world, who treat the entire exchange as an unpleasant chore to be completed as quickly as possible – or not at all, if there’s a fixed-price store nearby. You won’t be insulting anyone if you try some good-natured horse-trading. As long as both parties are happy with the final figure and have gained something from the transaction, then it’s a deal well done.
2 Shopping should be enjoyable and bargaining with an amiable salesman can be rewarding. View the experience not as an ordeal but as a cultural interchange. Keep things light and relaxed, and accept that your “opponent” is likely to come out on top; he has been in the game for much longer than you. Remember, though, you’re in a position of strength because you make the final decision on whether a sale takes place. If you reach a stalemate or have any doubts, thank the vendor and move on.
3 Allow plenty of time. Stroll around the market taking in the atmosphere and comparing merchandise for quality. Check if any desired items are faded or damaged from being in the sun too long. If you plan to be in town for a few days, take it easy. When you first set eyes on that gorgeous Persian rug, exchange pleasantries with the seller and leave it there. He will recognise you’re not to be hurried. On no account utter the words, “I absolutely must have it”.
4 Many stallholders rely on tourists being ignorant of local prices and quality. They will realise if you’re unable to tell the difference between gemstones and coloured glass so give the impression you know what you’re talking about. Before you start wheeling and dealing, decide what you would pay based on the cost of other purchases. How much was last night’s dinner or a taxi back to the hotel? Did you see anything similar in the fixed-price store? Is the item available at home and would you get it for less? Some visitors to Hong Kong seem unaware that buying a camera back in London or Los Angeles is often cheaper than picking one up in Tsim Sha Tsui.
5 Try not to make the first offer. By leaping in with what you believe to be a reasonable price, the initiative will be lost. You’ll now be buying from the vendor rather than have him striving to sell to you. Let him suggest a figure. Ask politely if he can go lower. If the price is excessively high, respond with a correspondingly low bid. Hold out for his “final price”, then halve that as your counter offer. You could try pointing out the product’s (real or imaginary) flaws. Agree to a glass of mint tea.
6 The seller may begin a theatrical sequence of acting shocked, outraged and pleading poverty before compromising. Refuse to be rushed or intimidated and be ready to shuffle slowly out of the shop at any time, feigning disappointment and suggesting many other outlets have the same item for sale. Don’t let the merchant’s emotions get to you. Our relative wealth and sense of guilt means we find little incentive to bicker over what seem paltry sums when converted into Hong Kong dollars. Accept a second glass of mint tea.
7 Your relationship with the seller will affect what you pay. If the roles were reversed would you offer your best deal of the day to an obnoxious, impatient stranger? If the shopkeeper hits below the belt by asking how much your luxury beachfront hotel is costing, pretend you didn’t hear the question and inquire how much he paid for the gleaming four-wheel-drive parked beside his store. Keep smiling.
8 If efforts to reach agreement falter, try a few words in the seller’s language. Holding his new baby and cooing is really a last resort. It’ll certainly melt the ice and you could become a lifelong family friend. Invitations to attend a village wedding might materialise; just make sure it’s not your own. With a mutually beneficial deal struck, you’ll return to Hong Kong brimming with confidence, ready to use your newly honed negotiating skills on used-car salesmen, sampan grannies – perhaps even your landlord.