Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Great Indian Bargaining Game

Many overseas visitors to India are taken aback at the kind of street shopping that they experience.

The touristy parts of the country - Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan - are full of pushy vendors trying to sell them things at downright outrageous prices. In Bombay's Colaba district, I often see street vendors quoting tourists twice or thrice the normal price.

I met an American lady recently, it was her first visit to India. She said to me, "Deepa, when I shop here, I feel so much at a loss...I'm the outsider, and I feel like I have to constantly watch out so I'm not cheated." She was a smart, savvy woman, but she felt almost abused, emotionally as well as financially.

I thought about what she said - and realised that she was experiencing a kind of culture shock.

Any Indian woman will tell you that if you look prosperous, vendors will always quote you a higher price. All of us learn to handle this sort of situation - by watching other women, and of course, by learning from experience. I used to find bargaining very intimidating. But these days when someone quotes me a totally wacky price, I just grin widely and say the Hindi equivalent of "Yeah right, go pull the other one". Then we haggle back and forth a bit, and when the price gets to the point where I think the vendor is making a good margin, I give in. It's all part of the Great Indian Bargaining Game, and it has taken me a while to master it.

So I sat down to explain it to my American friend. I said, shopping in India is a state of mind, a game that you play. To treat this overcharging-bargaining game as a personal insult, or worse, to think of yourself as a victim because this doesn't happen in your country, is just totally missing the point.

I told her she needed to apply a different yardstick when in India. No one was singling her out for extra-harassment...this is how the shopping culture in this country works. Street vendors are not demons - they're just a bunch of fairly poor people trying to get a few extra dollars off anyone who looks like they can afford it. In my MBA school they called this "what the market will bear" pricing.

India is a both a destination and a journey. It has woven its magic for millenia now, on travellers from all parts of the world. It is a complex and rich culture, with so much to offer - but the rules are different. To explore this sort of complexity, you have to step out from the comfort zone of neatly labelled racks and polite checkout greeters. You have to embrace the street shopping and bargaining spirit.

It can be fun, actually. There's the crafty assessment of what something is really worth, the starting position, the bantering conversation and the give-and-take, the testing of each other's mettle, and the final agreement on how one particular shawl fits into the overall cosmic scene of things!

Travel wouldn't be half as interesting if the world was one big Walmart.


Anonymous said...

well, one can ask for lowering prices at yard sales and flea markets and fairs and festivals here in the US. One has to ask and you will come at a price acceptable to both the seller and the buyer. If that is not called bargaining then what is?

My best bargains when I was not dressed in my not so good clothes!

Lionus said...

Just discovered your wonderful blog while researching Mumbai. Wonderfully written and beautiful pictures. I'll just have to find time to read though your archive now! Hopefully I will be able to experience some Mumbai magic next week! Keep up the good work.
ps. I totally agree with your take on haggling. It all should be done in jest. You have to remember that when you convert back to your own currency and you realise you are only bargaining over 1 dollar (or less), they need it more than you so consider it payment for a life experience!


purple pitara said...

Hi Deepa!
I grew up in Bombay & now have moved to Bangalore. I love reading your blog (not sure which one among the 3 generations of such wonderfully creative women is my favourite!) You bring to me both nostalgic memories as well as the magic i never saw when i was there...thank you :)

bhavna2716 said...

hey.. its nice to c Mumbai with some different lenses i m journalist working with DDNews it would be wonderfull to do a profile on u.. plz mail me ur contect details on my Id
Bhavna Chouhan

Anonymous said...

Dear Deepa,
Love your blog, and read it regularly.
Also, the American woman should think about how the same process works in America. Somehow that is not conidered harrasment or cheating. For instance, you can walk into a fancy store like Nordstroms (or a middling one like JC Penny) and pay $500 for a suit, come back a month later and see it selling for $400, and a week or two later for $350, and finally snag it on clearence for $200. At no point in this process is Nordies or Penney making a loss. You sure got 'taken' when u shelled out 5cs for something someone else got for 2 cs.
If you think about it, this is exactly what you said about the Bazaar merchant- what the market will bear. The NYSE runs on a similar idea. Yet many Americans I've met get all bent out of shape about a similar practice by the Desi businessman who is operating on wafer thin margins and feel stressed out- great that you straighten them out.

Jai said...

this was a lovely post. joy to read.

Unknown said...

Hi Deepa. Very well written. I hope more people get your attitude. Shopping at Walmart is boring as boring can be. No one can match the service and the patience with which the shopkeepers show you their wares in India.

One thing that was frustrating - I went through a travel agent when doing the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur triangle. Even though I tipped the guides well, they would not take me to shop at stores that I wanted to shop at (wife is a firang and therefore they think I have lost my bargaining roots). The agents were fairly adamant saying this is the right store to go to and that they cant vouch for quality if shopping elsewhere. I quickly realized that the guide was going to get a cut from the shopkeeper. I have no problems paying more - I didnt want the experience of shopping in bazaars to be lost to her. Eventually, shopping ended up being a fairly frustrating experience. We had to let the guides go for the day and explore on our own at night. I guess I should have stumbled upon your blog sooner :)

Anonymous said...

your writing skill along with the true justification of the spirit of mumbai has surely made this article a overwhelming read.

Unknown said...

Very Well Written ...
Even myself, as a Mumbaite used to find it tedious to haggle with these traders who often misquote the prices of their commodities to almost double its retail price. The problem for me as a customer arises when i dont know the exact market price of these products and often end up shelling out more cash.
But as you rightly pointed out, travel wouldn't be half as interesting if the world was one big Walmart.

Arabella said...

Whenever I feel that a trader is trying to cheat me, I inmediately flee from him/her and tell all the people I know to do the same. Call it as you want, but cheating is CHEATING. Everywhere.