Bargaining The Arab Way: Six Hints on How to “Get a Deal”
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
Arabs are known to be quite the bargainers. If the buyer is not familiar with the Arab style of bargaining, a “buyers beware” notice might be a good idea. This is not intended in a negative sense, but to highlight the cultural differences involved in “shopping” in an Arab marketplace, contrasted to western-style shopping. No matter how one shops, it is a good idea to know the terms of how to get a reasonable value for one’s money.
1. Bargain “backwards”–work the conversation about price from “cheap” to a desired price
Khan al-Khalili Bazaar in Cairo–a great place to make a bargain
Prepare beforehand to get a sense of what the real cost of an item is. Do this by asking the desk manager in a hotel where you’re staying or an Arab friend. Often, the context of shopping is a tourist marketplace, where prices of an artifact or product are fluid. In standard markets, such as grocery shops, bakeries, cafes–prices are fixed.
Say, you’re looking for trinkets and souvenirs in the Khan al-Khalili in Cairo, a famous tourist shopping market. First things first, how much should you pay for the taxi? If the taximeter works, that is probably the legitimate price to pay. If not, then the driver may manipulate the price up to double the standard fee. So, beforehand, get an idea of a reasonable fare and negotiate that before getting into the taxi. Once you’re in, it’s harder to get out with a “bargain.”
If you’re buying gold, the price of a milligram is fixed, but the workmanship on a piece of jewelry is variable and thus an object of bargaining. Similarly, for carpets, you’ll need to have an idea of the range of cost, based on the history of the carpet, and of the quality, based on your actual knowledge of how to compute that. Taking along an Arab friend to help with your shopping may aid in getting a reasonable deal, but doing that may just take the fun out of the bargaining process. Furthermore, the seller of an object may be made to feel dishonest because you’ve introduced a second person into the equation.
Bargaining in the suq in Cairo
If you have an idea of how much an item should cost, and assuming the seller will give you the high end, then work backwards, from perhaps half or a third the offered price to a more moderate-reasonable price. Language is not usually an issue, given that talking money is fairly universal. However, if you speak Arabic reasonably well, then that usually helps to create a relationship of trust with the merchant and may, therefore, result in a “reasonable” price for both parties.
2. Arm yourself with patience and a “gaming” attitude
Historic painting of people bargaining for a carpet in old Cairo
Make a game of shopping, purchase what you want for yourself, family or friends, and enjoy the experience. If you’re not interested in learning about someone, say a shopkeeper, then this style of shopping may not be for you. Haggling requires a state of mind that involves a give and take, getting to know something more about a seller than simply what the price is. In this sense, Arabs, including shopkeepers, are usually friendly and enjoy a certain repartee, and want to know something about you and your family. For non-Arabs, a few words of greeting in Arabic are helpful. For our Arab readers, this makes all kinds of good sense.
Patience is the name of the game in bargaining with Arab shopkeepers. It’s, after all, a social experience. A certain attitude of “gaming” is useful, in ensuring that you don’t overpay. You hardly ever have to worry about underpaying. In the end, the merchant will get her or his due. After all, it’s not just about individual profit, but also about the craftsman who put his labor into a product. Fairness, to the extent that you can determine it, is a prerequisite for a reasonable shopping experience.
3. But play like you’re quite serious
You’ll find gold galore in suqs around the Arab World
You have to let the “game” play itself out. First, you shouldn’t try to undercut the merchant by offering a price before hearing his offer. Now comes the tricky part, that of deciding what portion of the presumably inflated price you’re willing to pay. This is where the earlier-mentioned bargaining backwards is operative. In my experience, depending on the item, offering from half to a third of the original price may work. If it’s a high-quality item, then you don’t want to insult the seller by offering a ridiculously low price. This is where a knowledgeable sense of the “market” is helpful, namely prices for comparable items in other shops.
4. Don’t “show your hand” (divert your attention)
A traditional souvenirs market in Oman.
Look over a number of similar items, including the one you’d “really” like to have. Then begin pricing among these items, without divulging the item that has become the object of your affection. Indifference concerning any one item is the key. Get the seller to offer you prices on 3-4 items of the same type that you might like. Then, once you have an idea of the range of prices, pounce! Casually say, “oh, this one (a ringlet, bracelet, necklace) works,” namely the object of your affection and see if the seller takes the bait. This often works, though the merchant is probably just as savvy as you are or more so, but you still may end up with a decent bargain.
5. Be willing to walk out on any deal–though with care
Make sure you remain friendly even if you are acting like you want to walk out on a deal.
I’ve found that in addition to seeming indifferent to any single item of purchase, if there is no deal on the horizon, it is acceptable to politely decline the “bargain” and say, ma’salma, bye-bye, and advance your way out of the store. This must be done with some care, however, so as to not appear silly much less to insult the merchant. However, I’ve found that in some circumstances, it works, since in an Arab cultural sense, by your gesture of leaving, you’re saying, ma’laish, it’s not that important, though it’s not your fault, and we can part in a friendly way. Such an action may result in getting a fair price closer to what you’d really like to pay.
6. Don’t get too friendly too fast
Seal the deal with a soothing cup of sweet, mint-flavored tea
By this point, we understand that 1) Arabs are generally friendly people, 2) they like to socialize and get to know a little about a customer, and 3) they love the game of bargaining as much or more than you do. Often a good deal is consummated with a cup of tea, Arab style—usually strong and sweet, often with a twig of mint to flavor it even more. This induces a warm, fuzzy feeling of buying what you want at a good price and meeting someone who enjoyed the interaction. He or she may not be the owner, but rather an employee, who needs to meet ends in feeding a family. If you find that the seller is not the owner, it’s a nice gesture to tip that person, knowing that you’re helping her family, as well. Tea is usually for the conclusion of the bargaining venture—to do so sooner would probably interfere with a “real” bargain. Even though tea is simply tea, in the Arab World, it also represents a ritual that bonds people. Besides, it’s also a sweet ending to a favorable shopping experience.
John Mason is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017.