Souks: haggle heaven or hassle hell?

Being taken for a magic carpet ride

The carpets in Morocco must indeed be magic. Certainly at the price the berber vendor was asking. I spluttered into my mint tea and tried to remember what the limit was on our credit card….

Piles of style

It was our first trip to Marrakech and despite having visited markets all over the world, the souks of the red city were infamous for their hassle and intensity, so we approached with some trepidation. We’d already been tricked into a ‘free’ visit to the tanneries with a very amenable chap who simply wanted to practise his English with us, and had now been enticed into a carpeted lair to ‘just look’ at the fine fabrics on display. We had no intention of spending any money, and stood awkwardly making admiring noises at the piles of colour balancing all the way up to the ceiling, wondering how soon we could escape without seeming rude. In desperation I gestured to a rug to point out the intricate embroidery detail to hubbie, just to break the uneasy silence. Big mistake. Before we knew it, a small boy appeared from nowhere and scrambled precariously to the top of the teetering pile to extract the one I’d seen. We were ushered to a comfortably carpeted seat and plied with mint tea. Rule number one: If you’re not going to buy, don’t accept the mint tea.

Where the deal was done

Where the deal was done

We sipped, grateful for something to do, as the boy began flamboyantly spreading the rug out before us. It was brown, certainly not a colour I’d choose to go in our house. The man approached and began his pitch, which included lots of smiling and trying to set the rug alight with a cigarette lighter to prove that the rare and expensive cactus silk was immune to fire. We nodded in agreement. Yes, a non-flammable rug was indeed extraordinary and the knowledge that if the house burnt down at least the rug would survive was surely worth a bit of investment.

Leaning towers of weavers

Leaning towers of weavers

Next out came the notepad, on which he wrote a figure with so many zeros I had to put my glasses on to read. Hubbie looked daggers at me and said we should leave. I felt embarrassed at the thought of not buying anything after all the effort they had gone to and convinced him we should at least try to get the price down. After much debate, mock heart attacks and copious amounts of smiling (he knew he had us hook, line and sinker, and we had to smile to cover up the fact we knew he’d got us) we finally agreed a price. We didn’t even really know how much we were paying since it was our first day and we were still learning about the exchange rate. We just wanted to get out of there. Luckily he had a card machine, very fortuitous. It would make a nice surprise when we got home and saw our bank statement.

Armed with a rug we did not want, but feeling pleased we’d survived our first haggle, we scurried back into the medina, getting lost several times along the way but fearing that to ask for directions would cost us more money. Finally safe behind the riad walls, we slowly recovered from the experience, and convinced ourselves that the rug would look fine indeed in our lounge, and it was in fact what we’d always wanted after all.

Berber Man – how to get what you want for the price you’re happy to pay

After several holidays and multiple forays into the secret covered alleyways brimming with slippers, trinkets and spices, hubbie and I now have our purchasing act down to a fine art and really relish the experience. Even the vendors are impressed. It goes something like this:

Me: “Oooh, look, that’s a nice bag, Mum would love that for her birthday.” (It’s actually for me, but I have more chance of hubbie agreeing to the purchase if I pretend its for a gift. We always take a LOT of ‘gifts’ home)

Hubbie: Rolls eyes at boring girlie tat. “OK, go and have a look then.” (Knows full well the wife will end up keeping the bag, just like all the slippers, djellabas and countless ceramic bowls which never get used…but life is easier if she is kept happy).

Vendor: “Good for presents, I make you a good price.”

Me: “How much?”

Vendor: Scratches his head, umms and ahhs, then plucks a random figure out of the air. “700 Dirham, it’s a very friendly price.” [This is about £50]

Hubbie: Staggers around clutching his chest as if suffering a heart attack. “Gosh, don’t scare me like that, I need to sit down.”

Vendor immediately pulls out a stool and gestures for hubbie to have a seat. Now the bargaining is about to begin.

Vendor: “Ok my friend, make me an offer.”

Hubbie: Scratches his head, umms and ahhs, then plucks a random figure out of the air. “How about 30?” [This is about £2.50]

Vendor: Laughs loudly, drawing the attention of neighbouring vendors. “30 Euros? Ok my friend, we have a deal.”

Hubbie: Laughs even louder. “No, Dirhams, not Euros, my friend.”

Vendor: Looking mildly offended, although his eyes are gleaming. “No no, that’s a funny joke. Now offer a real price!”

His vendor neighbours are now calling out in encouragement. To him, or to us, we are unsure.

Me: Needing to keep the sale moving in case Hubbie decides it’s just not my mum’s colour after all. “How about 80 Dirhams?”

Vendor: More laughing and fevered brow wiping. “Ok, ok, I come down a bit. I can do it for you, special price just for today, for 600 Dirham.”

So we continue to argue the price, and numbers fly back and forth for several minutes. The neighbouring vendors now seem to be rooting for Hubbie who is in full swing, but the vendor just won’t agree to our final price offer.

Hubbie: “That’s still too much. Come on, lets go.” He gets up off the stool and starts walking away. I am left holding the bag with a disappointed look on my face. There is nothing I can do however, since hubbie clearly holds the purse strings.

Me: Imploringly “Oh please, its such a nice bag!”

Hubbie: “No, we’d be able to buy it back home for less than that. Lets go.” He walks off into the souks. I look apologetically at the vendor, put the bag down and reluctantly follow hubbie, who is now almost out of sight.

Birthday bag bargaining

Birthday bag bargaining

A minute later we are gone, and around the corner we begin to admire bags at another stall. We have to try very hard not to glance over our shoulder, awaiting the pitter patter of sandals that we know will shortly be preceding their owner. We don’t have to wait long, and share the smile of conspirators as we know we have won.

Vendor: “OK, Mr English, I do it for 100 Dirhams. I don’t make money on this so I give you this price just for good luck.”

Result.

We follow him back to his stall, money changes hands and there are smiles all round. Vendor is happy as he has no doubt still made a killing; Hubbie is happy as the neighbour vendors are slapping him on the back and calling him “Berber Man” (which we figure is a compliment as Berbers are notoriously hard bargainers); and I’m happy as I’ve got my bag. Sorry, I mean my mum’s bag.

Aladdin's Cave

Aladdin’s Cave

Seven top tips for hassle-free haggling

  1. Vendors usually give a good deal on the first and last sales of the day, when they are still setting up, and when they are hurrying to get home.
  2. Buy in bulk - purchasing more than one item from a vendor can often help negotiate a good deal.
  3. Always smile and be friendly - it will go a long way. These guys are only trying to make a living, and the bartering is all part of the banter. They will respect you more for giving it a go.
  4. The usual rule is to begin your negotiations by halving the figure they ask at first. However, they often start at such ridiculous prices knowing the tourist will follow this well-known rule, that it’s often better to return volley with an equally ridiculous low sum. That way you will hopefully meet somewhere your side of the middle, and pay what you think it appropriate.
  5. What is it worth to you? It’s often very hard to value an item, but if you think about what it would mean to you, and how many hot dinners it will buy the vendor in return, then it will be a good sale.
  6. If you’re still not happy with the price, then walk away. The vendor will come after you if he wants a sale, and you can be sure he won’t sell if he isn’t making a profit, depsite telling you he is ‘giving’ you the item just for good luck.
  7. Enjoy it! The first time might be scary, the second time you will learn a few lessons, but the more you throw yourself into the haggle, the more you will get out of the experience. And that’s after all what you are there for – the experience.
Vendors relax with a game of draughts between sales

Vendors relax with a game of draughts between sales

Happy haggling!

Copyright © The Conversant Traveller 2013