Morocco Journal 3: Shop, Bargain, Buy or Walk Away

How many glasses of mint tea can you drink in a day?  Every shop owner, whether in the souq or in a traditional store, will offer mint tea.  The tea is delicious.  It is also a strategy to get you to sit down, talk and stay a while.

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A while can often be two hours!  Don’t take the tea unless you are ready to linger, like what you see and willing to bargain.  You have to bargain hard.  You have to get to the point where the seller begins to call you a Berber.  Then, you know you are getting closer to the real price.  It took me a day to learn this.  Yesterday I was called a Berber repeatedly with a great deal of respect.

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In Oaxaca, crafts people may offer you a mezcal as a sign of hospitality.  There is very little if any pressure.  Of course, if you drink more than one, you may lose your sensibilities.  Oaxaca prices have very little play in them.  Most things are tagged. Some are not.  It’s different in Morocco.

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There is nothing for sale that has a price tag on it!  Yes, there are tags with numbers, but all the sellers tell you these are reference numbers.  I expect that they are indeed some type of pricing code, but I couldn’t even begin to decipher this.

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If you want something, here is what you do.

Don’t ask for prices first.  Decide what you like.  Select a group of things.  Sit down. Have some tea.  Take your time.  Watch the presentation of beautiful hand made art.  Once you decide on what you like, take out your notebook and pen.  Draw a chart like a Scrabble scorecard with the seller’s name on one side and yours on the other.  Ask him his price and to write it under his name.  Offer less than half his asking price and write that under your name.  He will cross it out and write his “best” price.  You will say NO and write your best price.  Don’t go down too far too fast or you will pay too much!  You need to do about four to six to eight rounds of this back and forth.  You will get to the fair price when he says he can’t do any better and you say you won’t pay that much.

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I had a traveling companion once who said you have to learn to walk away and then you watch the price go down.  This is not something we are used to in our culture and at first it feels very uncomfortable.  I think a lot of the bargaining mentality also comes with the power of the dollar and the exchange rate.  We have such an advantage using dollars in Mexico.  Much less so than here in Morocco where the Dirham is tied more closely to the Euro.  Now, 8 Dirhams to the dollar — a 20 percent premium.  In Mexico, 12.5 or more pesos to the dollar — a 20 percent discount.

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I’m figuring there’s about a 40% discount margin.  If you end up paying a little more, but you love the piece, you have struck a good bargain.

Rule of Thumb applies to small inexpensive things like baskets you find in the square to very costly, large carpets in shops.  However, in the square, you may have to do all those calculations in your head :)

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I’m traveling with Judith Reitman-Texier, founder, La Bedouine argan skin care and La Bedouine Lifestyle.

2 Responses to Morocco Journal 3: Shop, Bargain, Buy or Walk Away

  1. Great post! Your photos are great too.
    I have to say I hate bargaining. Since it follows such a rigid script, I find it ultimately manipulative and disingenuous. Since there is a ‘fair price’ that the seller will not go below, the idea for the seller is to find someone who is not ‘skilled’ at bargaining and take advantage of them. For me as a buyer, I rely on that ‘fair price’ to determine if I truly want the item. As a person with enough discretionary income to go travelling, I don’t want to make the seller sell it lower than his ‘fair price’. Why the waste of time? I’m making a purchase, not negotiating a labor contract. Totally not my thing, but you can’t travel to some wonderful spots without doing it.
    In Oaxaca, at a rug shop near the Zocalo, I stopped to look at rugs. Trying to make a sale, he started at some arbitrary price (high for la turista, I’m sure) and work the price slowly downward, assessing my interest. I was tired, and the rug was nice, so I sat and listened, but I really didn’t want to buy with that mindset and got up to leave. The price came down more, but I left the store and I left him without a sale. So I got a little rest, but I wasted his time and I’m sure added to his impression of Am tourists, whatever that may be.
    Also, in Oaxaca, I was told by my driver that there are no fixed prices in the markets (after I had paid the first price). I had asked the seller, and she said the prices are fixed. Perhaps just for naive tourists. But I was still happy with the purchase. Did she go home happy that I had paid her too much? This was in a town that is known for its woven belts with the fringe. Can’t think of its name.
    Was this souk mainly for tourists, or do locals shop there as well?
    The items look lovely. What did you buy?

    • Hi, Elaine. Yes, I hate bargaining, too. I’m certain that on Day One I paid too much not being comfortable with the bargaining culture, even though I read that I should start at half. I kept asking the price and people replied, you tell me what will you pay. I have learned to always get the other person to name their price first. In Oaxaca, the independent rug weaving families in the village of Teotitlan del Valle will start out with a fair price or only slightly above, maybe five or 10 percent more. There is very little wiggle room. Probably, in the Oaxaca rug shops more bargaining may be expected, but I’m not certain about that because I only buy direct from the weavers in Oaxaca. I saw both locals and tourists in the souk. What did I buy? Here is the list: a small leather shoulder bag, a silver and malachite necklace, one woven shawl, and I couldn’t get out of the rug trap alive — resulting in the purchase of two rugs which I will take to and use in Oaxaca as a souvenir of my visit. Who can escape Morocco without a rug?

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