Shopping in developing countries can be an intense, even baffling, experience for westerners who are accustomed to price tags, consumer protection agencies and transparent sales practices. Although I’d haggled in the streets of Europe and South America, those encounters did little to prepare me for a month of negotiating across India – home to some of the most persistent and skillful vendors you are likely to ever meet.
To an Indian merchant (cabbies included), selling wares or services is a sophisticated trade requiring tenacity and cunning. Although the bargaining ritual is performed with natives and foreigners alike, pink-skinned tourists make particularly easy targets for gouging. However, if you understand the rules of the game you can save yourself from hyper-inflated “tourist” prices, avoid feeling like a sucker at every turn and actually enjoy an authentic cultural experience. Take it from someone who’s been ripped off in Delhi, Srinagar, Agra, Calcutta, Chennai and Bombay. (That would be yours truly.)
Here’s the skinny:
1. Don’t expect honesty.
About anything! Not about the price, how little profit is made, how many workers have to be paid, nor how a cousin visited the city you’re from and said the people there were the best he’d ever met. It’s all bullshit. In this game, there is one objective – to charge you as much money as possible – and how you are persuaded to do so is of little consequence.
2. There is no “real” price.
The price is whatever you can be talked into. You’ll know how low they can go when you walk away, and not before.
3. Manipulation is standard operating procedure.
Westerners are accustomed to being polite, complementing an artisan’s creations, and making small talk with no obligation to buy. Not so in India. You will be lead through a series of emotions designed to make you feel guilty for not purchasing, and friendly banter is only foreplay. Expect to see combinations of the following:
a) Glee. How are you, friend? The vendor is so happy to meet you, he is so grateful you’ve entered his shop. In a craftsman’s workshop, you may even be offered tea. Welcome to the honeymoon. You are a wonderful human being.
b) Concern. You have doubts about his product? Clearly you do not understand the way things are done in India/what a terrific offer he is making/how lucky you are to have found him. Not to worry! He’ll explain to you again why this kurta is the finest in all of India. You can easily redeem yourself by opening your wallet.
c) Disappointment. You have insulted him, either by suggesting a ridiculously low (read: probably still inflated) price for his unique treasure, or by changing your mind after he has spent some time demonstrating its value to you. In some cases, you may even witness disgust. You suck.
4. It’s not personal.
These customs are so different from our own, it can be easy to misunderstand and get flummoxed. Yet Indians have a very different relationship to money. A merchant might actually think you are one of the coolest Brits he’s ever met, but that doesn’t mean he’ll have any qualms about ringing every last rupee out of you. It’s simply how the game is played. His opinion about you and his business have no bearing on each other.
For all the antics, it’s just business. Watch and you’ll see that Indians play the same game with each other; they’re just much better at it.
Now that you understand the rules, how exactly do you thread your way through this minefield? Practice these three guidelines, and you’ll bring back great war stories and a refreshing dose of confidence.
5. Talk trash.
This is perfectly acceptable! If you see something you like, resist the urge to tell the seller how beautiful it is. Don’t even smile, or show it to your companion. Pick it up and look it over, and look shocked when you hear the price. Try looking embarrassed for the vendor – how could he even suggest something so ridiculous for this piece of crap? Rattle off a few flaws, making them up if you have to. The material feels cheap, the paint has a chip, there’s a pull in the thread, you saw the same thing for half as much outside your hotel. Put the item down, shaking your head or wrinkling your nose.
6. Keep moving.
No matter how much you want to buy the thing, leave it. Meander to another part of the store (closer to the door) or even out of it and watch that price drop. You’ll be astounded by how much and how quickly it falls when you act completely disinterested. The last price you hear before the merchant stops following you is probably his best. You can turn around and accept it, or see if you can get another vendor lower. Once it’s quoted, it’s yours; go have lunch and come back for it after, if you want.
Remember, you will see hundreds of the same item before you leave the area. Stopping to look does NOT mean you have to buy, no matter how hard the seller tries to make you feel that way.
7. Be clear on what’s included.
This is especially true for services (cab fares, money changers, guesthouses/hostels) or any negotiation with multiple elements. Be sure to clarify anything and everything you want before you agree how much to pay; make no assumptions about what comes with the deal! (Think tips, tolls on taxis, a/c, outfits with more than one piece, an extra trinket offered earlier.) If there is a way to tack on extras, bet your ass an Indian will find a way to beef his price up, especially if you’ve negotiated him down already.
It takes a pretty thick skin, but if you can haggle in India, you can haggle anywhere. This is a great opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and grow, so dive in. Have fun!