My introduction to haggling occurred about ten years ago in a stifling market in Bangkok’s Koh San road. I needed a pair of “farmer’s pants” (the baggy cotton jobs so fashionable amongst travelers) and — as with any transaction in Thailand—a few minutes of negotiation would be required.
“Five hundred baht,” said the vendor, barely looking up from her mango salad. “Good price for you, cheap.”
After more than a month on the road, I had successfully avoided haggling, leaving my girlfriend to handle our purchases. She enjoyed shopping and reveled in the interaction with the locals. I, on the other hand, would rather pull my own toenails out than talk some shyster down from her wildly inflated price based on the colour of my skin.
But that day, the hand-holding stopped.
“You’re buying your own pants today,” my girlfriend told me. “Hang in there and you’ll get a good price.”
So there I was, face to face in the mid-day heat with a canny street vendor who could smell my lack of negotiation skills like a dog smells fear. Knowing that my target price was 60% of her first offer, I thought I’d skip a few minutes of back and forth and get right down to brass tacks.
“I’ll give you three hundred,” I said.
Behind me, my girlfriend sighed. “You are so bad at this,” she said, walking away in disgust.
Fast forward to today, where for some reason I’ve agreed to take part in an experiment in which I’ll attempt to haggle for everything I buy for a month. Were I still in Thailand, this would be a cinch. But since we Canadians are (sadly) averse to pushing for a better price, I’m expecting an uphill battle.
So far, it has not been easy. I typically shop for groceries at a neighbourhood discount store, and I knew that the front of a long checkout line was not the place to start demanding a better price. So I waited for a quiet period where I wouldn’t be causing a disturbance to see what kind of deal I could get.
As expected, the cashier had no authority to lower prices and called the manager over. He patiently listened as I made my pitch for a 10% discount, and told me that in the interest of fairness, all prices in the store are final. “I can’t give you a discount and then charge the guy behind you full price,” he said. “I’d have a riot on my hands.”
An independent shop down the street was my next target. I got a warmer reception there, which I figure is partly due to the fact that I’m a familiar face and that I make an effort to speak a little Mandarin with the Chinese owners. I managed to score 10% off some fruit that was a day or two over the hill, saving me around $1.50. Not exactly a windfall, nor is it worth the trouble, in my opinion.
Our negotiation-free consumer culture aside, I’m convinced that the margins on food are simply not large enough to leave room for haggling. I’m sure one could find a deli here and a green grocer there that is willing to knock a few points off the price, but bringing down the cost of an entire bagful of groceries is a tall order.
I’m in need of some summer clothes, so we’ll see what kind of deals can be struck in that department over the weekend.