Shopping is wonderful. Travelling is wonderful. Shopping while travelling is even more wonderful, because the things we buy are infused with the memory of the unique places where we bought them.
Even a nondescript pair of cotton boxers can have memories when you bought them from a Tokyo convenience store so you didn’t have to find a laundromat. Still can't believe our own ones haven’t copied the idea.
But while bringing home weird and wonderful things is one of the delights of visiting new places, I often find the process of obtaining them agonising. Because I hate bargaining.
I'm not talking about buying a TV and trying to knock a couple of hundred bucks off the marked price if you pay with cash. I'm talking about establishments with no price on display, where the initial sum quoted is dizzyingly high but quickly drops when you turn and walk away.
Usually when shopping in our home country, we have some notion of what an item might go for before we walk in. And we assume that the prices quoted are at least ballpark reasonable, roughly comprising what it cost to create the item, plus a margin for the vendor and anyone in the middle.
It feels undignified to have to tell somebody who is potentially doing it tough that you insist on a lower price.
When you're haggling overseas, the actual cost and usual price are unknowable unless you've spent a lot of time in that country. That means you're flying blind. Sure, you can walk away, or pretend you're about to. But when you go through the charade, the seller will also go through one about how it's a great price and they can't believe you'd say no, when they're doing you a huge favour by offering.
I did my share of mediocre acting in high school, and am not eager to extend my dramatic career the way you’re supposed to when you haggle. You’re supposed to act uncertain, then tough, then feign a loss of interest and then suddenly switch to all friendly at the end when the deal’s done. It’s exhausting, and you walk away with no idea whether you got a good price, meaning you usually don't feel satisfied with your purchase. If you later discover the same thing going for less, you feel the hot shame of being fooled.
The haggling process feels particularly awkward when you're in a developing country. It feels undignified to have to tell somebody who is potentially doing it tough that you insist on a lower price. Coming across as a cheapskate is no fun. But nor do I like the idea of paying astronomically high prices because of the assumption that as a foreigner, I won’t know any better.
The start of the negotiation is the worst part. The seller may say “how much do you want to pay”, to which “a reasonable price where you make a bit of money but aren’t taking advantage of me” is never a possible answer. Or they name a price that's so high that the scoff of derision with which it’s customary to reply is entirely genuine. Neither is much fun.
You’re supposed to act uncertain, then tough, then feign a loss of interest and then suddenly switch to all friendly at the end when the deal’s done.
It's gotten to the point for me that I don't even ask about buying anything. On a recent trip to Kenya, I ended up buying far fewer souvenirs than I'd have liked to because of my growing aversion to haggling – which wasn't in the vendor’s interest or my own. So it was a huge relief to find a craft centre in Nairobi with fixed prices.
Our tour guide gave us some good advice – regardless of what they say, they're not going to sell anything to you at a loss. Sellers have as much right to say no as we do. But I just don't enjoy it. Whereas if there are fixed prices, and they seem okay, and nobody’s trying to pressure me, I'm much more likely to spend up.
Bargaining is commonplace throughout much of Asia, with many well-stocked markets in most major capitals, but I prefer the system in Japan, where it’s considered rude. Prices are fixed, and they generally won't go down at discretion. It’s even rude to tip, because any suggestion that the price might not be fair is impolite, even one that implies it's too low.
I know some travellers pride themselves on their bargaining technique. As far as I’m concerned, they can have all the souvenirs from the market stalls and tourist traps that don’t have fixed prices. Having to go through all the amateur theatrics means that no matter what I’m paying, the cost feels too great.
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Image courtesy of sandeepachten.com.