Master Bargainer: TPOL’s TIPS for Shopping Abroad

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Master Bargainer is part of the ANA, Take Me ‘Round the World Trip Report.


There’s nothing worse than haggling to buy something you like, only to find out that you overpaid. There’s nothing worse than the gut-punch feeling from finding out that I paid more than someone else. It doesn’t matter if it’s leasing a vehicle or buying a tee-shirt from the Fake Market in Shanghai. I want to pay the 朋友 price. My frugality has nothing to do with it. It’s about not being duped. It’s about boasting that I got it cheaper than anyone else. This is why I sit on the curb at an airport instead of accepting the first dozen taxi offers (see Sharm el-Sheikh Taxi: For 40, I Bring You Camel, Tomorrow).

In Bhutan, there was a mask that I had to have. The first price I was quoted was $400. I was told that the novel stones on it made it expensive. I was also told that carefree people see something they like and buy it. They aren’t worried about the price. This sort of dare may work on suckers who see it as a challenge to prove their wealth, but it does not work on TPOL.

The question is how do you buy the stuff you want without feeling the bargaining blues later? By following TPOL’S TIPS.

TIP 1: Fight for Every Penny. I don’t care if it’s a taxi, a tee-shirt, or a pair of socks. The “it’s only $1, it’s only 1 yuan (14 cents),” rationale will lead to overpaying for everything else. A baseline for what certain items cost is needed before the bargaining begins. For example, a mass-produced tourist tee shirt of questionable quality should cost between $2.80 and $3.50 (20-25RMB). A tailored suit should be $70 (500 RMB) (see Fabric Market Shanghai Prices: How to Bargain (2019 Edition).

TIP 2: Be Wary of the Sales Pitch. If you hear any of the following, run away. “I’ll give you local price.” “I give you friend price.” “Really sir, no profit.” “Really sir, you are too tough.”

TIP 3: Don’t Shop When Other Tourists Are in the Store. Demand is not good for your wallet.

TIP 4: Do Your Reconnaissance. It takes time to figure out what the true price should be. This requires going from store to store and going through the haggling process.

TIP 5: Don’t Use a Middleman. Even if you have a local friend, even if you have trusty Bhutanese tour guides (see Traveling to Bhutan? Contact Bucket List Adventure), don’t let these people bargain on your behalf (see Finding Penis (Happiness): Bhutan Day 4). I always do a better job because I can be ruthless and not worry about offending a fellow countryman.

TIP 6: Stick to What You Know. I don’t know how much jade costs in a store at home let alone in a random shop in Shanghai. I don’t know how much cashmere costs. I don’t know what gems costs. Thus, I do not buy these items.

TIP 7: Assume It’s Fake. If I do buy something outside of my expertise, I take the approach that it is fake and try to get it for next to nothing. If it turns out to be a knockoff, then I didn’t lose much. If it is of good or good enough quality, I got a good deal.

TIP 8: Shop for One Item at a Time. You’ve done your recon. You know what you want but something else catches your eye. Excited, you ask how much that item costs, and now you’re on your back like a turtle.

TIP 9: Speak the Language. TPOL the Polyglot knows numbers in many languages. I also know how to say “expensive” and “you’re crazy”. Those words help create a fun bargaining process and lubricate the sale.

TIP 10: Don’t Believe in Inflation. “You bought this suit for $70 in 2010. My costs have gone up.” Sorry Shanghai tailor, I will pay today (see Fake Market Shanghai: 2019 Pricing Guide) what I paid yesterday (Shanghai Fabric Market: What Is Friend Price?), if not less.

TIP 11: Leave. Everyone knows that leaving the store leads to the inevitable discount as the shopkeeper calls out a lower price. That doesn’t mean you should reengage. Walk away unless you receive the price that you want.

Tip 12: Come Back, Later. After you leave, take note of where the shop is. As you continue to do more recon, you may find out that this shop truly had the best price. Going back is not a sign of defeat.

TIP 13: Don’t Go Back to the Well. Purchase everything you want from the merchant at one time. Coming back a second time and expecting to receive the hard-fought price on a new piece of merchandise will not happen. The merchant will remember how much you took him or her for on the last transaction and will try to make up the difference on the next transaction.

TIP 14: Be Heartless. Even if you’ve been there for an hour, even if they offered you a water, don’t weaken your position. As I wrote in my book Everyone’s Advice Is Wrong, you know you’ve received the best price when they throw the merchandise at you and call you a bad man.

TIP 15: Be Nice. Don’t get it twisted. Being heartless is fine. Being rude and/or being a jerk is not. Bargainers like bargainers. They will eventually love you or love that they hate you.

TPOL’S MASTER TIP: Have Exact Change. If all else fails, hand the exact amount you want to pay to the merchant, put the merchandise in your bag, and walk away. If you aren’t accosted or arrested, you have won the day.

Follow TPOL’s TIP or pay $400 in Bhutan for what I received for $14 in Nepal.

6 COMMENTS

  1. You and the Queen must go shopping together. You would likely both be banned. Mrs. TPOL and I can film it and make a documentary.

  2. I’ll add one, don’t be afraid to offer waaaaay less than they are asking. Don’t be obnoxious about it, but when they say, “how much do you want to pay?” I usually say, “oh, my offer would be an insult.” I end up offering much less(don’t listen to guide books that say you start at 50% of what they vendor said). If they keep bargaining, I know I can get them down. I once got a “real gem stone necklace”(knew it was fake) offered at $60 for $5. I simply told the person $60 was too much and they proceeded to follow me, lowering the price.

    I also have a tendency to be super-American and ask people how much they paid for stuff so I can get a ballpark of how much things cost.

    Bhutan is a weird place for bargaining, though. No one at the base of the Tiger’s nest was really into bargaining with me, but everywhere else was. However, Tiger’s Nest prices were the lowest for those items I found anywhere.

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