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My wife LOVES to shop. Unfortunately, many men are slow to learn just how important shopping is to women. In fact, it took me awhile to realize her happiness on our trips was in no small way proportionate to the time we could spend shopping- not necessarily buying.
Shopping internationally is even more appealing than just plain regular shopping, but it is done quite differently abroad than it is in the States. Throughout the world, posted prices for most items are not the prices the seller expects you to pay. They are the prices from which bargaining for the final, actual selling price is determined.
Most Americans are not used to bargaining or negotiating for merchandise, and many feel awkward, even embarrassed to do so. No need to feel embarrassed. Everyone does it. Actually, once you overcome your reluctance to do so, you'll find you enjoy bargaining more than you would have thought. In fact, when you return home from your travels and start showing everyone your goodies, if you're like us, you may get a bigger kick telling your friends and family about your negotiations than whatever it was you bought!
Americans, though, are generally quite clumsy at this, at least at first, so permit us to give you some valuable tips on how to save money when shopping abroad.
When we are in larger towns, even central markets in large cities like the souks in Dubai, we will stroll along until we see a shop crowded with local customers. "Locals are easy to spot because they don't wear alligator shirts, carry cameras around their necks, etc. So when we are about to do some serious shopping, we will try to reduce our 'Americanness', at least a little.
We will go into the crowded shop and just listen. Move around. Listen to how locals carry on their business. you'll get more comfortable with their "system". You'll also make an important discovery: The price the merchant offers an item to a local is always lower than the price they will offer to you. After awhile, you will come to realize this figure is, say, 20% less, on average, than what they ask you to pay. Once armed with this knowledge, you know to automatically lower your opening offer.
You also notice that when the merchant offers the price to a local, the local buyer counters with an offer that is, say, 20% lower still. The merchant and customer laugh, they jokingly trade "insult", and in the end, they agree on a price somewhere between. Do the math- that's a selling price 30% lower than the price the merchant will ask you to pay. Maybe more.
Few Americans realize, however, that it is improper to walk into a local shop and expect the merchant to sell anything for 30% off, or more, right off the bat. That is simply not the way things are done. The merchant, who would otherwise feel free to give you a substantial discount, will probably consider such an offer presumptuous, and may possibly even be offended by such behavior.
First, know this: The merchant is well aware of how much he paid for the item you want to buy, and he will not sell it to you below a certain price he has already determined. Anything above that price is acceptable to him. It is up to you to find the minimum, and it is a measure of your skill as a "bargainer" as to how close you come to that minimum acceptable price.
Know, secondly, that the merchant respects you in direct relation to your skill as a bargainer or negotiator. It is nor considered skillful to barge into a shop, find an item you like, offer 50% of the asking price and expect instant acceptance of your offer. That behavior is condescending. It doesn't make the merchant want to help you by lowering his price. Again, notice how the local people shop and buy.
While in Dubai recently, we were jewelry shopping and saw a ring we very much wanted in the window display.
We entered the small shop, located in a huge commercial shopping area, and asked to see several similar pieces, that is, all rings. If you are interested in other additional things, like bracelets, do them next, but separately.
As we looked over the jewelry, and especially the piece we wanted to buy, we started chatting with the merchant. Turns out he emigrated to Dubai from Mumbai, India, where we had been visitors just a few days earlier. We chatted about Mumbai, about the Taj mahal, about traffic jams and horn honking in Delhi. He offered us green tea and we chatted some more. He said he has many brothers and sisters, most of whom are still in India. He told us his family runs a diamond cutting business; that overall, the family (all of whom are in the business) has 14 shops, including a manufacturing shop, and employs 60 people!
We were in his shop for at least an hour, and had a wonderful afternoon we will remember long after the trip is over. As we have said, for us, it is the interaction with the people that usually produces the best memories. We also love the ring. Got a great price on it too! And he promised to give special consideration (and pricing) to anything we wish to order from him once we are back in the US.
If you keep yourself open and receptive, all sorts of wonderful things will happen to you serendipitously. Here's a delightful story to illustrate:
We were in Xian, in the south of China, the city where the famous Terra Cotta Warriors are to be seen. The trip had been arranged for us by an agent in Canada. In those days, arrangements for travel to China went through the government's Intourist Agency, so our agent did not have personal knowledge of anyone who would be caring for us there.
We were picked up at the airport by our English speaking guide. He began our tour by taking us to see some obscure something or other, so inconsequential I can't even remember now what it was. We got out of his car, Nan into the wheelchair, hiked down some broken trail to view a statue of a long dead emperor.Our presence didn't help the emperor- and seeing his statue didn't do much for us, either. I told our guide to be more sparing of Nan's energies. He nodded.
Back into the car, he took us to another obscure place. This time I was a bit sharper in rebuking him for not sparing our energies. We went next to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, a true treasure and an experience not to be missed if one is in China. We lovingly meandered around the site for nearly two hours, but the guide did not come with us. When we were finished and got back into the car, he immediately began telling us where we were going next.
When he was finished, I said something like it sounded like a great plan, but Nancy was quite tired and we wanted to go check into the hotel and rest a bit instead of continuing on sightseeing that afternoon. Our guide was flabbergasted. It was as though he had been assigned to take us to A, B, and C, and would be held personally responsible if he failed to do so. Probably shot at dawn for disobeying orders.
Finally, I did something I had never done before- I fired him! "You won't get any of your money back, doctor. This is your fault, not mine," he said. He didn't know that physically challenged people use up much more energy than fully able people. We simply needed rest more than we needed anything he could have shown us. We went back to the hotel with the guide muttering to himself (in Chinese) the whole way. For him, this was a substantial "loss of face". While we would love to have avoided it, there seemed to be no other solution.
After he dropped us off, we checked in, went to our rooms, and immediately fell asleep for nearly 4 hours. When we awoke, it was late afternoon, but we were refreshed and felt like "moseying around". We left the hotel to explore the streets in the surrounding neighborhood. As we were walking, we came into an area where local artists had set up "sidewalk" shops, offering crafts, trinkets, and rice paper paintings for sale. Very authentic, and quite inexpensive.
There was one painting we fancied, so we asked the young girl what the cost was. She spoke very little English, and we were having a hard time communicating with her. As we struggled to purchase the painting, another young woman came over. She was also selling paintings further down the sidewalk, but overheard our conversation with her friend and came to help out as she spoke English- and rather well at that.
We chatted with her a few minutes, commenting on her excellent command of our language, and then we asked her for advice on negotiating prices. We asked her, straight out, "How do you bargain with local merchants when YOU go to buy things like this?" She told us that usually there are a number of people selling the same type of things. Many selling paintings; many selling pottery, or statues, or identical handbags. She goes to all of them and gets the prices of the item she wants, say, a handbag, price averaging about $15.00.
Then she goes back and forth, playing one seller off against the other. "This bag you showed me- you say you will sell it for $15.00. But there is another merchant down there (waving ambiguously) selling this same bag for $10.00." (Maybe true, maybe not. I pick a figure I am willing to pay.)
She waited to be sure we understood what she was telling us, then continued.
"Let's say this second merchant does not want to sell so cheap. He tells me No. Then I ask, "What price you will sell this to me?" He says $12.00 Then I go back to a different merchant and say, "I like this handbag. You sell this to me for how much?" He says $15.00. I say, "I saw this same bag down there (again waving ambiguously) for $11.00. (I am making this price up.) I say, "I give you $8.00." He say he cannot accept less than $10.00. I buy because they all see me going back and forth. I know this is best price I will get because they cannot go lower.
It was an invaluable lesson she taught us, like nothing I ever learned in school, and not something we would normally think to do in the US. But more importantly, we made a friend. We continued to chat with her, and as we did, a large crowd of people began to encircle us, just as they had done in the gardens in Beijing. The crowd grew so large, it spilled out into the street and was beginning to block traffic. A policeman at the nearby intersection had to stop directing traffic, leave his podium, and come over to disperse the crowd!
I can no longer tell you whatever happened to the rice paintings we bought. They were not expensive and, like many of the things you pick up on such trips, they amuse or occupy your thoughts for a short while, then are forgotten as they are replaced by new things entering your life. But the young lady who came over to help her friend- that's a story in itself.
We told her about being "guideless", having fired the fellow from Intourist. Turns out she had a friend with a car. Both of them were students, out of school for the semester break, and she said she would love to show us her city of Xian. We accepted.
She called her friend, and for the next few days she took us around and provided us a delightful and refreshing tour, giving us what was in her heart, not what was on a tour agent's script.
Our delightful guide helen with Nancy and my brother at the open-air herb market in Xian, China.
We maintain a correspondence with her to this day. In fact, she even came to America and visited us in our home.
Neat story? It is the kind of thing that happens when you are open and receptive to what is around you. We have such things happen to us all the time, and it certainly makes our travels richer for the experience. The technique we learned from Helen has a broader application we would like to share with you. This technique saved us 40% on the purchase of a new digital camera. Here's the story:
Do you remember what she told us, about going back and forth among various sellers and pitting one against the other until she arrived at the best price? I have taken to buying most everything we use over the Internet. When I bought a digital camera recently, I went to Buy.com, filtered through the various screens until I came to a listing of the exact camera I wanted.
Then I scanned a list of perhaps 20 stores, nationwide, selling the camera, ranked by price from least to most expensive. The list also rated customers' satisfaction with the sellers. The top price for the camera was $749. The cheapest price for the exact same camera, new and in the box, was $449. I found the price difference astounding! $300.00!
You might suppose the choice is a no-brainer, but I noticed the company selling at the cheapest price also rated among the poorest in terms of customer satisfaction after the sale. I was concerned what would happen if we had trouble with the camera later on. I ended up paying $479 for the camera, the lowest price from the highest rated seller on the list. Was I sorry I "overpaid" by $30? No, I was pleased at having saved $270.
Another example of applying the valuable lessons we learned from our young friend in China:
Physical changes have begun to overtake us to a certain degree, and I have just recently begun having trouble with my back. Among other things, 20 years of lifting a wheelchair and transferring someone half a dozen times or more a day is certainly a contributing cause for that. The decision was made to purchase an electric scooter, if Nancy could operate one.
We went online and searched (Google) for "electric wheelchairs." The pages that came back didn't seem to fit our needs, but we saw that many of the companies listed also sold electric scooters. We closed out the first search, and Googled for "electric scooters". Many "hits" came up, and as we visited the different sites, we began to get a feel for what we needed for Nancy.
We called several of the 800 numbers, and chatted with whoever answered each phone. We told them what our situation was, and what we were trying to accomplish. Four of the first five people we spoke with advised us the best bet would be a Pride scooter. This is NOT intended as an endorsement for Pride. In fact, we later had some technical difficulties with the scooter and found the Pride organization to be stiff-necked and totally unhelpful.
We noted the price of this scooter on each of the web sites. (We could have gone to buy.com and done the same thing). The best price for the scooter, retail price $1,495, was $799. But the company was located in Florida and we are in DC.
Next, we went to the local Yellow Pages telephone book and jotted down the phone numbers of several stores convenient to us. We called up the first one on the list, the one closest to our house. In discussing our needs, the owner of this place agreed the scooter four others had suggested was probably the best for us, but the only way to tell is to go in for a "test drive".
We arranged a convenient time for the following day, and Nancy and I went to try it out. For one thing, I was not all that sure she could operate the controls, as she has the use of only one hand/arm. She did splendidly, and we decided to buy the scooter. "How much is this going to set us back?". We needed to know because this would be out-of-pocket, not Medicare. he responded the cost was $1,495. "Well", I told him, "we have a problem. This scooter is available over the Internet for $799."
I suppose some people try to fool merchants by picking a figure out of the blue. he asked me to prove the price I told him, so we sat at the computer on his desk and I punched in the URL of the web site where I had seen the scooter for the lowest price the day before.
When he saw this, he started asking me that what would we do if we needed service? Wasn't it better to have a relationship with someone locally? You get the idea. We told him we agreed with everything he was saying. "So tell me again," I asked nonchalantly, "what can we do about closing the difference in price?" "The best I can do would be $1,200," he said "C' mon," I said, "we want to do business with a local person if possible, but it isn't worth $400. It's like a car. If we buy a Chevrolet in California and drive across country to the East coast and need service, no one is going to turn us away because we didn't buy the car from them. We're much too far apart on the selling price."
"Well, I have never sold one so cheaply before, but I suppose I could go to $1,000," he replied. "Tell you what", I said. "We can get it for $800. You just offered to sell it to us for $1,000. Let's split the difference, and each of us give up $100. We will pay you $900; you'll make a little money, we'll save a little money, we'll both be happy, and this could be the start of a great relationship. You know, the day might come when I'll need one of these scooters for myself. Where do you think I'm going to go first when I buy"?
We tell you this story for several reasons. First, to make you aware of what a great money saving tool the Internet can be. In fact, we might have been able to go to E-Bay and done even better with the final sales price. Second, we recognized- as did the seller- that we could benefit from one another over the long haul.
For $100, I did not feel it was worth trying to squeeze the last nickel out of the deal. That last bit of money could come back to bite us on the butt should the time come when we would need some help and he might be the only person available to provide it. And he realized one all important axiom: You can't multiply zeros. A sale at some profit is better than no sale at full price. We shook hands, both of us satisfied we had done the right thing.
In your negotiations, remember you can beat someone down, but if he loses self esteem, your victory will be hollow. In this case, we made a point of letting him know we were not out to get the better of him. By allowing him to feel he, also, had input in the negotiation, we know anytime we need help, we can go to him and neither one of us will harbor any hard feelings about the deal we struck.
You saw the new scooter in the last chapter, as we took it to Disney World. It made our trip a great deal easier for both of us.