Bartering 101

Knowing when enough is enough

Many of us who have travelled have been here. You’re in a new country, ready to buy some new handicrafts to bring back for  distribution, as promised, to your friends and loved ones… but only for a ‘fair’ price of course! Time to break out those new bartering skills you’ve only just recently acquired. It’s a good thing that foreigner was there to give you a few pointers in the night market last night, or you might have paid close to similar prices as back home!

Ecuador - Otavalo - Hammocks

Checkin out some hammocks in Otavalo Market, Ecuador

Thailand - Chiang Mai - Lamp Shop

Lamp Shop – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Peru - Cusco - Traditional Llama Wool Weaving

Llama Wool being woven in a local village in Peru

It’s fairly common knowledge that most developing countries are accustomed to bartering on the initial suggested price. This is one of the main reasons most street vendors don’t advertise prices with price tags, as the stall next to them would then surely try to undercut them. I’ll admit, coming from a country where this isn’t common practice, it can be quite the rush seeing how good a deal you can get on an already well priced item. It almost becomes addictive to the point of being a little ludicrous. You’ll often be taught, by other travellers or through travel guide books, the techniques for scoring the best deal in the country your visiting. Sometimes this may be by simply turning your back on the vendor, and magically the price is half what was initially quoted, other times the 2 for 1 deal seems to work, but more often than not, it simply takes persistence.

Japan - Osaka - Gift Shop

Gift Shop in Osaka, Japan – can you spot “Gizmo”?

One thing that seems to often get lost in that exchange is the true value of these items to the vendors selling them. Many travellers start challenging themselves, even on what was already a good deal, simply for the sake of bartering.

Peru - Cusco - Traditional Llama Wool

Woman’s weaving project – Cusco, Peru

Ecuador - Otavalo - Dream Catchers

Dream-catchers being displayed for sale in Ecuador’s Otavalo Market

Thailand - Chiang Mai - Karen Hilltribe Shop

Karen Long-Neck Hilltribes selling hand-woven fabrics in Thailand

At a fairly young age, on a trip through Thailand, I remember bartering for some biking goggles to accompany a rented scooter. I probably figured I’d only need them for the day, so why not try and get a price which would reflect that. I spent a good 20 minutes in the back and forth game, until I got a price I was quite pleased with.
Later that evening, I had met up with a local fellow I had befriended earlier on, and recounted my pleasure in the day’s score. At first he came across quite impressed, expressing that I had managed a price better than he could have probably achieved. After a bit of careful consideration, and a careful choice of words, he also put it in to perspective. He told me that occasionally the local vendors, depending on the season and scarcity of tourists, are forced to sell their items at a price lower than what they paid for them. “Why would someone do such a crazy thing??”, you ask. Simply so they’ll have money that evening to buy food for their families.
Thailand - Chiang Mai - Thai Silk

Thai Silk being sold in the night market in Chiang Mai, Thailand

India - Varkala - Tibetan Market

A Tibetan market lining a cliff side overlooking the ocean in Varkala, India

What seemed like a great deal to me, may have been a desperate attempt by the shopkeep just to put food on the table that night. Of course, looking at both sides of the coin, this is definitely not always the case. Some handicraft vendors are some of the wealthiest people in their town, and bartering is merely a formality for them.
Ecuador - Otavalo - Beads

Bead necklaces for sale in 100’s of colours

Ecuador - Otavalo - Gourd Carving

Gourds with intricate carvings from a market in Ecuador

Japan - Takayama - Frog Shop

Frog souvenirs from Takayama, Japan

My only suggestions to you are these. Before making a purchase on something large, try reading up a little online about what it’s value ‘should’ be. Then, if possible, browse several shops to see if you can get an average price, to know what you’re looking at, and it’s average value, and beging bartering from there.. Once you know a good starting price, you can try a couple of the techniques of turning away, or asking for a 2 for 1 deal.
The most important thing to remember to bartering successfully, and sustainably to the local culture,  is to try and read the look the vendor is giving you. When bartering, please try and really listen to the words they are saying. If they try to tell you “this is less than what I paid” or look at you with desperation when you try to undercut them further, there’s a good chance you’ve reached what should be the lowest price. Gauge how much the item is worth to you, and always remember, it’s probably considerably cheaper that you’re buying it from the source.. and now are bringing back not only a souvenir, but a memory and experience, in addition to contributing to the local economy of your destination!
Ecuador - Otavalo - Woman Selling Hangings, ready for bartering

Wall hangings for sale in Ecuador

When you barter in a fair way, everyone’s a winner! You can leave happy knowing that you’ve done the right thing, and ended up with some cool swag in the process!
Thailand - Chiang Mai - Marionettes

Traditional Thai Marionettes

Peru - Cusco -Wool Clothing

Llama wool clothing and necklaces in Cusco, Peru

Thailand - Chiang Mai - Metal Working

Metal-works in the streets – from the artists hands to your hands

India - Varkala - Tibetan Handicrafts

Tibetan Handicrafts ready for some bartering in southern India

Ecuador - Otavalo - Wrestling Mask

The classic “must-put-on-crazy-masks” shot with a rainbow wrestling mask!

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to barter? Did you feel that you got a good price? Was there ever a moment in the process that it felt like it was going a bit over-board? Did the local seem satisfied with the final price as well? Please share your experiences in the comment section below!