The art and science of haggling


Watch this Gramps,” he hissed to my Dad, “Do you know how to get the best price on a taxi? This is how… just watch Mom!”

My Dad chuckled, Ez continued his play by play narration:

“The cab driver will pull up, and Mom will ask him how much…. see…. okay, now she laughs, slams the door, thanks him and walks away…. now watch, he’s gonna follow her and roll the window down… he’ll give her a lower price, but she’ll keep walking… then he’ll ask her for her price… then he’ll laugh, but she’ll keep walking… and we’ll get it for her price in a minute!”

My Dad smirked at the boy, amused, “Gee, I wonder where she learned that?” From him, of course.

Haggling is both an art, and a science. There is a formula to it, the back and forth, the informed negotiation of knowing what a fair price is, and knowing how to “play the game.” Then there’s the flare of it, having fun, keeping everyone smiling and laughing, making sure it feels like a game, and not someone getting the shaft.

Haggling is expected in much of the world, it’s how business gets done, and it’s not something to be afraid of, it’s something to be enjoyed, and when you get good at it, there’s a certain amount of cultural respect that comes with being able to negotiate the nuances of a transaction and come to a fair price for everyone concerned.

It was a point of pride for me when I met a friend, who lives there, for lunch in Ubud, Bali, having spent the morning shopping for treasures at the local arts market, and he commented, “I see you got a good price, what did you buy?” I showed him.

How do you know I got a good price?” I asked, quizzically.

Black bag. If you get the white bag with stripes, it means you’ll pay too much, the other vendors will see you coming!” After that I carried my black bag everywhere.

I spent the better part of an afternoon as my Dad’s translator, slowly working an Tunisian fellow down on his price for a bernouce that my Dad was determined to wear home. “Your father, he is a hard man!” the seller announced, as my Dad forced me to really put the screws to the guy. “Tell me about it!” I quipped, “Try growing up with this kind of negotiator!” We both laughed, feeling one another’s pain. He acquiesced to my Dad’s bottom dollar price.

And then, my Dad handed him a wad of bills that he’d pre-prepared and tucked into his front pocket: the price he was willing to pay for the item in question, and not a dinar more. The man unrolled the bills and started to count: a wide grin crossing his face, he clapped my Dad on the shoulder, they laughed together and grinned hard across the language gap. Dad had paid 50% more than the price he negotiated the poor guy into a corner over.

There are two lessons I learned at my father’s knee about the art and science of haggling:

1. Don’t be afraid to do it!

When it’s culturally appropriate, haggle like crazy, keep your sense of humor and have a great time playing the game. Don’t be afraid to walk away, but never enter into negotiations if you aren’t prepared to follow it to the end. Haggling can be great fun and a good way to make friends!

2. Don’t be a cheap bastard!

Just because you CAN get that lady who is desperate to sell her weavings down to $5 USD for something you know darn well should be worth $30 doesn’t mean you should pay that. Play the game, negotiate hard, and then pay a fair price, preferably at least 50% more than you bargained down to, and in many cases, their asking price is still an excellent deal. If you’ve bargained hard, you’ve gained their respect, you’ll gain even more by demonstrating that you know the real value of what you’re buying.

What are your great haggling stories? Do you have a method that works for you?

Posted by | Comments (2)  | July 2, 2013
Category: Vagabonding Advice

2 Responses to “The art and science of haggling”

  1. rubin pham Says:

    one time i witnessed an american tourist trying to haggle to a poor old woman in vietnam over 5 cents. what was the point?

  2. Jennifer Miller Says:

    Rubin… indeed. I hate that. That falls under #2. Generosity is the only way to live. 🙂