The on-going discussion endures about whether one bargains in Mexico with vendors for a lower price. Is it a cultural norm or expectation? Many say, Yes.
Others resist for obvious reasons. Why? The exchange rate is in favor of Europeans, Estadounidenses (those from USA) and Canadienses (those from Canada). Mexicans have always been undervalued for their labor.
They say the average daily Mexican wage is 150-200 pesos. I’ve also heard 88 pesos a day and 100 pesos a day. At today’s exchange rate of 18.2 pesos to the USD, 200 pesos is about $11 USD per day. In Chiapas, where I just returned from, skilled women weavers on the back-strap loom, creating garments with intricate supplemental weft, earn about 30 pesos per hour.
Here’s what my friend and colleague Sheri Brautigam, in her book Textile Fiestas of Mexico, says about shopping and bargaining:
“I know everyone likes to get a deal, but I feel this attitude takes advantage of the position of the artisan who made the item; it’s an exploitation model of the past.
For the most part, artisans are quite humble when they present their work, and they possibly have in mind the price they would like to get for their item. Often, almost immediately, they will bring the price down if they see you hesitate more than a few seconds. They want you to buy it. This is because local Mexicans are ruthless when they bargain, and the artisan — if she really is in need of making a sale for her survival — can be reduced to selling the item for barely the cost of the materials.”
There is more, of course. I suggest you get this valuable Traveler’s Guide to Celebrations, Markets and Smart Shopping.
The same applies to all artisan craft throughout Mexico, not just textiles. Pottery. Carved and painted wood figures. Masks. Guitars. Silver jewelry. Handcrafted food.
Think about your position when you ask for a discount. You are the person NOT making 200 pesos per day. If an item costs 500 pesos and you want it for 400, in all likelihood it is priced fairly and the extra 100 pesos represents almost a full day of work to the maker. To you, it is a $5 difference. A cup of coffee at Starbucks.
We have this discussion among expats and visitors in Oaxaca all the time — to bargain or not? There is a private Facebook group, Clandestine Oaxaca Appreciation Society, where members address the question repeatedly.
Many who are proponents of bargaining are like Accidental Tourists, armchair travelers who occasionally get out of their seats, embark on a vacation and think that bargaining is part of the entertainment. Anne Tyler’s protagonist in her novel hates traveling, and does so only “with his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life.” Yet, he enjoys “the virtuous delights of organizing a disorganized country” while pretending he never left home. Does this sound like anyone you know?
Why do artisans lower their prices?
- The season is slow and sales haven’t been good
- They need money for food, to pay rent, to buy gasoline, to buy raw materials, to pay for school books and bus fare — in other words, cash flow
- There’s a family emergency, and since this is a cash economy, they need cash
- They may have lower self-esteem because they are the underclass, treated to believe that what they make has little or no value
What do you think?
Why do tourists bargain?
I think about this question in terms of cultural, political and socio-economic disparities. It might include being unconscious about where we are and our relationship to the people around us. We might conjure up the stereotypical image of Mexico thirty or forty years ago and apply it today. Perhaps, we are totally unaware of the daily or artisan wage. We might say, Oh, it’s cheaper to live here, they don’t need as much. We assume that the government takes care of its poor. (There is no social security in Mexico.) We like the power that the exchange rate gives us and the ability to strike a deal.
What about the foreign community from the USA and Canada who live in Oaxaca full-time or for many months of the year? We might say:
- Tourism drives up local prices, from artisanry to rents
- We learn to identify higher prices and walk away from them
- We understand that if we buy five or 10 items, we can ask if there is a discount
- We know that if we use a credit card, the merchant/vendor is paying 16% tax at a minimum
- We ask if there is a discount for cash
- We want to buy local and direct from the artisan, so we don’t pay overhead
- We want the price to be in pesos, not US dollars
- We are careful because we are retired, on a fixed income, and while we love the art, we can’t usually afford it
- Art is subjective, and the price is based on what the seller and buyer agree to
What do you think?
I’ve been thinking about bargaining in today’s Mexico consumer environment where class and race drives business and success. Is it institutional racism to bargain and drive a hard bargain with an indigenous person who has few resources, little or no education, and limited health care access?
Only each of us can answer this for ourselves. Are we willing to look at our own buying behavior and make adjustments? What is our personal view of cultural sensitivity?
What do you think?