At the Sunday Walking Street, a handicraft market in Chiang Mai, Thailand, my friend stopped to admire a teak wall hanging—a beautiful piece of teak wood hand-carved with intricate Burmese patterns by a local artisan.
“How much is this?” my friend asked in English.
The teak carver, speaking in Hmong, told her the price, equal to about $15.
She looked at the piece again, and asked, “Will you give me a discount?”
The carver looked hopeful. “400 baht.”
My friend stood over the piece, unsatisfied. “Can you go lower?”
The man looked quizzically at his carving. “350 baht.”
My friend said, “I will give you 150” (about $5). The artisan looked solemnly at the carving—which had taken him nearly two days of work to make.
“Okay. 150,” he said in a saddened voice.
My friend looked at the carving once more. “It’s not worth it,” she said, and walked away.
In the end, neither my friend nor the artisan ended up with what they wanted. And the truth is, my friend made several missteps in the negotiation. Granted, it’s overwhelming to shop in a new culture—there are so many unique things to buy, and you have zero frame of reference for how much they’re worth or how much you should be trying to knock off the price.
But bargaining is more than wearing someone down to get the best deal—it’s an art form that blends compromise, culture, and mutual fairness. Studying up on strategy beforehand will allow you to be respectful, while making sure that you’re not overpaying. Here are some tips on how to negotiate so that everyone ends up happy.
1. Know When to Bargain Hard (and When Not to)
Before you go, research the marketplaces where you’ll be shopping. If you’re visiting a tourist market, prices will likely be inflated, so get ready to bargain hard. In these cases, haggling down to 15 to 20% off the asking price is a good general rule.
At local markets, you’ll often get the same price as the locals, so you should only bargain to lower the price by about 10%. Some local markets use fixed prices, which means you won’t be able to negotiate. In that case, the seller will tell you “no deal” when you propose a lower price—and don’t try to push back.
Also, never bargain for food—in most cultures, it’s considered rude.
2. Talk to the Sellers
Is the artisan working and selling right in front of you, or is the vendor a middle man? Are the wares hand crafted or machine made? If the artisans are working where you can see them, inquire about the item, where it comes from, and how long it takes to make it, which will help you learn the story of the item and decide how much to bargain.
If the seller says, “my sister made it,” know that’s code for “this came from a factory.” If that’s the case, particularly if its cultural kitsch, like magnets or fisherman pants, you can bargain harder—you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get a fair price on a wholesale item.
Now’s also the time to tell the seller a bit about yourself to show how you’re different from the crowds of tourists he or she sees daily. Are you a teacher, a doctor, or a student? Play this up in order to gain respect—or the understanding that you might not have a lot of money to drop.
3. Know Prices and Values
If you’re eyeing a particular item, ask “How much?” at different booths and shops to gauge the average price. Understanding the range of prices for tourists and foreigners gives you a foundation to start bargaining from.
When you’re ready to commit, pick out the merchant you want to buy from, and ask, “Can I get a discount?” But don’t start bargaining unless you’re serious—it indicates a more serious intention than simply asking for a price.
Never name a price first, as this can devalue or inflate the price of the item. Once you get the asking price, assert your price. The seller may offer a flexible “no” or a very firm one—watch his verbal cues and body language for signs of a willingness to compromise. You should negotiate until you reach a number that still allows the seller to profit, while giving you a slight discount.
4. Trust Your Gut
Observe your seller carefully: When you’re wrapping things up, a smile can mean, “I’m overcharging you,” or it can say, “I’m pleased with this transaction and happy that someone appreciates my work.” A look of disdain can mean he’s genuinely insulted—or it can be completely feigned.
In the end, the process is all a fine game of wits, so always keep your cool. If you don’t like how a seller treats you, gracefully explain you just cannot agree to that purchase at the moment, then move on to the next seller. Often you’ll find that simply appearing disinterested will get him down to a price you both can agree to. And if you have a bad feeling about a seller or a piece, or think you can find it elsewhere at a fairer cost, trust your instincts. If you love the piece and think it’s worth it, commit to it so you don’t lose out.
5. Pay Your Respects
Once you’ve agreed on a price, treat the currency with respect—it’s not Monopoly money. Plan to carry small bills and change when you expect to haggle, as few sellers will be able to break big bills (and if you whip out a lot of cash after having explained how you’re a poor student, you’ve just lost your credibility).
And remember that sometimes you’ll get great deals, and occasionally you’ll be overcharged. In the end, you have to laugh or shrug it off. If you can afford a plane ticket to your destination, bargaining for a few pennies is all relative. So thank the seller in the local language, and celebrate your success.