Otherwise known as haggling in India.
Goa, India | Day 17
Gambling and haggling have a lot of the feels in common. And I’m pretty sure the house always wins in haggling too. And by the house, I mean not me. But I’m still here to tell you what I learned. Because after five weeks in India, it’s not nothing.
Sonia-in-real-life is in Conrad, Montana with her parents and I’m glad today happened before I tried to write the India haggling post because today, Saturday, the 8th day of April in the year 2017, was a case study in one end of the wide spectrum of the fine art of the barter. I don’t think there’s any confusion at home or abroad about the average American’s ability to argue their way into a reasonable deal. It’s non-existent.
I may not be an excellent bargainer, even after a month-plus in India, but the lesson of today is that I come by that failure honestly.
My parents are moving to Townsend (which is delightful for all their Bozeman children in that we can spend quality time with them by driving only 45 minutes to see them instead of 210), and today was the day of their moving sale. (Ah, moving sales. That glorious event in which you try to trick strangers into thinking all the worthless junk that you are literally willing to throw in the trash should somehow be exchanged for cash.) I showed up to help with this.
I can’t vouch for the rest of rummage sale season in Conrad, but over the course of four hours a not-so-steady trickle (more resembling a drip) of people drifted in and out of my parents garage. One old man in flannel pants, crocks, scraggly facial hair, and a Desert Storm cap actually lingered for well over an hour, but he was alone for most of that time.
Of the six people that bought things, here is a sampling of the conversations I overheard :
Man #1 : The ammo says five dollars. Would you take three?
Mom (without pausing) : I don’t really know what ammo is worth. Okay.
Mom : How many posters do you have?
Man #2 : Eight.
Mom : Well, they’re four for a dollar… so two dollars. [Brief silence.] Unless you want to try to talk me down?
Every rule of haggling was broken in Conrad, Montana this morning and I was there to witness it.
Luckily, I’m fresh off the presses from India or I might not have noticed.
When we first arrived in India, and well before I had any haggling chops of my own, Vandana and I spent an afternoon in Udaipur buying jewelry and jootes (the glamorous little ballet shoes). This was the warm-up and it actually took me a few weeks before all the nuances settled in. For instance, I initially didn’t understand V’s overwhelming desire to go back to the jewelry store and demand a lower price for the 350 rupee earrings we’d bought when we found a nearly identical pair a few stores further down for 100. What I learned along the way when I was personally responsible for my own haggling is that every time you realize you could have gotten a much lower price you feel swindled. And stupid. And you experience a deep desire to right both those wrongs.
And thus we arrive at lesson #1 of haggling.
#1 : COMPARISON SHOP
Don’t you DARE buy anything in India until you’ve checked the baseline for that item in more than one place.
Before we really get into any of this though, I want to hammer home the point that what’s more important than any of these lessons is the burning feeling of failure when you know you fumbled one of them. Haggling is a constant emotional teeter-totter between the massive rush when you might have gotten close to a fair price and the seething regret that you can’t take back your life choices when it becomes very obvious you didn’t. There’s a very real possibility the phrase ‘never make the same mistake twice’ was coined by someone haggling in India because every single one of these fails is seared into my memory.
Picture this. I am hot, sweaty, starving, recently mashed in a crush of humanity, but finally strolling away from the Taj Mahal down the gauntlet (um, avenue) of street food and souvenir shops, when I decide that now is the ideal time to purchase more shoes from India. I stop in a shop that has a fair number catching my eye and inquire as to the price. 700 rupees, the man tells me. Nah. Never going to happen. I am VERY proud of myself for rather quickly getting him down to 500. (The rush.) I purchase four pairs. I walk ten feet and get pulled into another shoe shop. Once again, I ask price. 400 rupees, he says. Ah yes. There it is. (The regret.) He started me out lower than I’d paid for pretty much identical shoes. Le sigh. But I still bought a pair.
And here we are at lesson #2!
#2 : DEMAND DISCOUNTS FOR BULK PURCHASES. BULK PURCHASES MEAN ANYTHING MORE THAN ONE.
Basically with each additional item purchased, you open the floor to drop the price of all the items. If you agree to a price of 500 rupees for the sequined jootes that you are dying to have and then the salesman talks you into three more pairs by jamming every glittery, brightly threaded shoe remotely your size onto your foot, you should certainly no longer be paying 500 per pair of shoes. I haven’t done the exact math on this, but my estimate in that situation is that it should have been closer to 1500. We’ll overlook the fact that 500 was too much to be paying to begin with.
A basic rule of thumb (although not applicable to all situations, such as when you know someone is already selling the same item for half somewhere else) is lesson #3.
#3 : YOUR INITIAL COUNTER SHOULD BE HALF THE ORIGINAL ASKING PRICE
This rule was handed down from the master, Vandana’s father. The man I would trust to purchase a brand new Porsche for the price of a forty year old station wagon. After a shopping excursion in Dilli Haat (an amazing open air craft bazaar in Delhi) Vandana and I both discussed how we’d rather not admit what we paid for things to her dad because we knew he would be massively disappointed in us, even though we were rather proud of ourselves. It was in Dilli Haat that I successfully pulled off my most impressive bargaining move of the entire trip…
#4 : WALK AWAY TO FORCE YOUR PRICE
But walk slowly.
I was purchasing a scarf from a Kashmiri vendor (and I’d already vetted the relative baseline because Vandana had also bought a scarf from there), so when he told me the scarf was 1500 rupees, I looked at him and said 1000 without hesitating. (I failed at the rule of halves, but let’s focus on the wins here.) He countered with 1400. I repeated 1000. He smiled, and dropped the price to 1200. I smiled back, shook my head, and walked away. He let me get about fifteen yards before he called me back with, “Fine, fine! 1000.” The rush.
But I will close this post on a moment of regret.
I started it out setting the timeline in Goa because it was in Goa that the bargaining moment that most nags my psyche happened. It was also my first solo attempt so perhaps I’ll forgive myself. Part of getting better at the whole game is having people (sometimes in the form of nine year olds) shame you later with their utter disbelief and shock at how much you paid for something.
Long story short, I wanted beach-y dresses for the beach and I walked into the first store I came across. With very little bargaining, no comparison shopping, no bulk discounts, no saucy walk-away move, and essentially no time to even decide which patterns I liked the best, let the lady rapidly pressure me into two dresses for 2000 rupees. (That’s about $30 total. $15 each.) That sounds reasonable for America. It was way, way too much to pay in India.
But ultimately – and this is a conversation that played out more than once – if you wind up happy with what you paid for something, you won. Even if you definitely could have gotten it for half the price. And even if you think about that literally every single day and twice when you see it.
But there is one thing that is the utter counterpoint to the burning desire to squeeze every purchase down to the last possible rupee, and that is simply remembering that whether I overpaid for something in India or not, I am absolutely certain that person needed the $15 more than I. And with that acknowledgement the regret dissipates completely.
Fair warning though if you do ever decide to play in India…
#5 : LIKE GAMBLING, HAGGLING IS ADDICTIVE AF