Shopping in a souk in the Middle East, India, or North Africa is not only a great way to experience the local culture- you can often excellent prices on products you could never find at home.
However, for many people the experience is so intimidating that they end up hiring costly local guides, or never making it past the entrance gate.
I’ve been shopping in souks since I was a nineteen your old backpacking through Turkey. We hadn’t intended to go further than Greece but we were running out of money so decided to board a train, and then a bus, to Istanbul so we could afford to keep traveling. I started my souk shopping in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and was too young and naïve to be nervous about the experience. In those brief moments when I did experience fear, my poverty motivated me to push through it.
Since then, I’ve come to love shopping in souks. I see it as a way to meet local people, and I view bargaining as a sport. With this mindset as a backdrop, here are ten tips I’ve developed over the years. They will help you feel confident, have fun and, more importantly, obtain a great price for that cashmere shawl you can’t do without.
1. Cultivate the right mind set. If you go in thinking you’re a rich foreigner and the locals are all trying to rip you off, you’re going to make yourself and everyone else miserable. These are business owners, they’re simply trying to sell and market their products. Except in the biggest, poshest souks, most of them don’t have websites. They advertise by shouting to you as you walk past their shop, or trying to get you to come inside to enjoy a cup of tea. This is sales, marketing and relationship building to them- nothing more. Be in a good mood: laughing and joking will make them more inclined to give you a better price.
2. Bring small bills and in some places, hard currency (euros or dollars). If the local currency is pegged to a hard currency, you can often get a better deal if you pay in the baseline currency. Small bills make negotiating easier.
3. If prices are written, they’re likely fixed. If the price isn’t written, you’re definitely expected to bargain. If this price is written it’s either fixed, or you’ll only obtain a small discount by bargaining.
4. Don’t buy the first item you see. Most souks have almost identical items available in multiple shops. Take a bit of time to “window shop” and see what’s on offer.
5. Discover the baseline price. Once you are ready to buy, you need to figure out the average ask price. I recommend going to three different shops and asking each of them the price of the item you want. Once they give you the price, smile and thank them. This leads to the next point . . .
6. Asking for the initial price is ok. After that, don’t offer a counter price unless you are serious about buying that item. Once you start bargaining, there is an expectation for you to buy so if you engage in the process then stop unexpectedly, they may get irritated or follow you out of the shop. There are unwritten rules of engagement for bargaining. If you don’t follow them, merchants may become annoyed (understandable from their perspective).
7. If you’re not interested in buying don’t walk into the shop or hold the item. These are usually taken as signals that you want to buy. There are levels of commitment: walking into the shop, holding the item, asking for the price and then making a counter offer. The deeper in you go, the harder it will be to extract yourself from the sales process.
8. Once you do start bargaining, don’t be afraid to walk away. That’s often when you start to hear realistic prices. If they don’t chase after you, you will need to increase your offer price if you return to purchase the item.
9. The more items you buy, the bigger discount you’ll usually obtain. Use this to your advantage. Shop around then try to buy most of your items in one place. I like to start bargaining, then when I reach pricing resistance offer to buy two items at a big step down in per unit price.
10. Beware of mass product demonstrations – especially if you’re buying a carpet. In my experience, the bigger the demonstration, the higher the seller’s margin. Having a private cup of tea with the shop owners is relationship building, watching a demonstration in the company of other tourists, then participating in a group tea party, is falling into a tourist trap.
About Mary Clare:
Mary Clare Bland is a web designer, blogger, social media consultant, business coach and serial entrepreneur. Her passion is travel- she has visited over 60 countries and stayed in hotels ranging from the fanciest luxury palaces in Abu Dhabi down to a sleeping bag (tent: no, snakes: yes) in the Australian Outback. When she isn’t working or traveling, you can find her exploring the parks and gardens of Madrid, taking photographs and practicing her Castellano (a constant work in progress). You can learn more about her here