Bargaining and haggling are a time-honored tradition when shopping at markets. Just make sure you don’t get taken advantage of.
Duke and I are unabashed consumers. When we’re on vacation, we’ll hit the markets once or even twice a day if possible. So let’s just say we’ve had plenty of practice bargaining for the best price. I also play hardball (our guide on our trip to the Sahara, Barack, saw me in action and was so impressed, he dubbed me an honorary Berber).
Haggling for everything you buy (food aside) can be exhausting. But it’s part of the culture in Morocco, and vendors look forward to a lively contest of wills. Follow these steps, and chances are you’ll get a good deal when shopping the souks.
1. Scope out the sitch.
Start out with a reconnaissance mission. When you see something you’re interested in, ask how much it is, as casually as possible. Then make a mental note and move on. Quickly.
You’ll often see similar items at other stalls, so it’s good to have perspective, to see if you’re getting ripped off.
That being said, if you see something you really want, snag it. You never know if you’ll find it again. Souks are labyrinthine, and there’s no guarantee you can retrace your steps another day.
2. Speak French if you know it.
Most vendors speak French as well as an impressive amount of English and phrases from Spanish and other languages. I’m not sure that all vendors assume Americans are rich and charge more — but it sure seemed that way. I definitely scored better deals when they couldn’t quite pin down my nationality.
And don’t worry about being fluent in French. Remember, it’s their second language, too, so you can meet in the middle, skill-wise.
3. Be aggressive if need be.
It’s not uncommon to be inside a narrow stall, looking around and then, when you turn to leave, find the merchant blocking your path. He might have something he’s shoving in your face, trying to excite your interest.
I found that there were times when I literally had to grab a vendor's shoulder and push him out of the way in order to leave.
Note that we traveled with our friend Vanessa, who said the men didn’t accost her in this way. So it might (hopefully) just be a “guy thing.”
4. Shop on Friday — despite what you’ve been told.
Everyone told us the souk would be closed on Friday, that everyone’s at the mosque. Well, Duke and I couldn’t resist just seeing if anyone was open — and sure enough, in the Marrakech souk, we found that about a quarter of the stalls weren't closed. Instead of the usual hustle and bustle, the passageways were relatively quiet, and we scored some great deals, as shopkeeps knew business would be slow.
5. Use this formula.
OK, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. How much should you pay? Here’s what I do: Think about what you’d pay at a store back home. Then divide that in half. You won’t be ripping anyone off, and you’ll be getting a great deal — which you deserve by eliminating the middleman.
On our last day in Marrakech, we found a fertility doll from Cameroon, covered in beads and horn and metal bangles, that we simply had to have. It wouldn’t surprise me to a see a museum-quality handicraft from Africa like this for $70 back in the States. (Indeed, a Google search revealed prices upwards of $100.) So I divided $70 in two, and decided I’d like to end up at $35.
6. Ignore their opening bid.
In most places I’ve been, the shopkeeps start with a reasonable offer and you can end up with a decent price by meeting in the middle. Not so in Morocco. They’ll try to get as much out of you as possible. So don’t even listen to the first number they throw out there.
With the fertility doll, the young man started at $200. By this point, I knew better than to even pay attention. I countered with $20. Yes, that seems ridiculous, right? But if they’re being ridiculous, you can be ridiculous right back.
7. Give yourself some wiggle room.
After you’ve figured out what you want to pay, go a bit lower. After all, you need to come up a bit, act as if you’re conceding, unable to escape the vendor’s wiliness. He wants to feel as if he’s won on some level.
Our fertility doll vendor offered the equivalent of $45 and wouldn’t budge.
8. Walk away.
This is an especially successful tactic in Morocco. (Not so much in India, btw, where we said goodbye to many an item.) Even though we were just above what I wanted to pay for the doll, I shook my head and dragged a reluctant Duke away.
“We could pay $45!” he pleaded.
But I can be merciless. “We’ll go halfway down the block,” I told him. “And if he doesn’t chase after us, we’ll go back and get it for $45.”
We had gotten only 20 feet away before the young man chased after us, grabbing my arm.
“What’s your final offer?”
I pretended to think about it. “We really don’t need it… $35 is my final offer.”
“OK. OK,” he caved. “You’re getting great deal.”
Yes. Yes, I was. –Wally