Bargain like a Berber
How to hold your own, and not feel like you’re getting scammed every day you’re in Morocco. Your guide to the psychology of the bargain and the mutual win in Barter.
Story: The Fatima Henna
The streets of Marrakesh are teeming with people. the experience is maddening, especially trying to keep hold of a 6 year old boy who has just had ice cream. Imagine his small blonde head, amongst a sea of brunet adults, in the darkness of New Years Eve. There are thousands more here than usual, and the space throngs with people. I don’t know how much of this I can handle, but we’re here and I couldn’t NOT come see it, so we’ll see how long it lasts.
All of a sudeen, a dark shape intent on our little group materializes into a woman. Fatima, her eyes are smiling, the rest of her facing hiding behind a hijab. “Hello” she says and takes my hand firmly in hers… she holds it poised, as if to kiss it, and then deftly pulls out a needle.. I start to freak out! WTF….but it’s a henna pen, and she deftly starts to etch beautiful arcs of flowers onto my hand.
She pauses and I go to pull my hand away.. she holds it, firmly, and definitely clear that she is NOT letting go of my hand.. “Excuse me.. Give me my hand back” I say to her.
Max looks at me. “She’s GOING to ask for money..” Is written all over his face. We’ve done this already before. She hurriedly says .. “for free, for free” meaning she’s doing this for free. yah right.
She finishes the drawing on my hand in less than 40 seconds, and turns to face my small son. She grabs his hand and starts drawing a scorpion on his arm. I ask her to stop but she doesn’t stop until she is done with the drawing. When she’s done, she turns around, and says “Selfie! Take a selfie” and poses, with the needle right next to her face and my hand. She’s done this before, and we both know it. She looks up at me, her eyes are no longer smiling, but have a questing, victim tinge to them, she’s about to ask me for money, I know it.
“I usually charge 600 dirhams just for the scorpion,” she holds Alex’s arm up towards me, and he squacks a complaint, because she’s almost lifting him off the ground. “But for you I ask only 300”
I look at her square in the face. “You said it was free.”
“You just give me 300, no problems.” 300 dirhams is 27 euros. No fucking way is that happening.
I can tell she’s done this hundreds of times today already. Two blonde haired tourists and a child are an easy mark, and she pegged us minutes ago.
“You said it was free, and I’m sorry, but you chose the wrong people to get money out of tonight.” I lay it all out on the table, made it clear she’s not getting anything.
“Just a little bit of money, for my children, my family.” Her eyes glaze, but it’s so fake I almost puke.
We go back and forth a few more times, and I’m tempted to just give her cash, but it’s tottal bullshit, and I’m not going to, just on the principle that it’s bad to teach the locals that their shit scams actually work. I decide to hold firm. “I’m not paying you, you said it was a gift, otherwise I would have taken my hand back. But you wouldn’t let me”
She glares at me. She’s realized it’s not going to work, and she’s wasted 4 minutes of her time for no money. “Fine!” she half yells, and grabs my hand, scooping the still wet henna back into her device. She reaches for Alex’s arm and does the same and then walks off without a word.
I feel like my hand has been raped, and for some reason the person who did is mad at me, even though they lied. My heart is confused, and my trust in the goodness of humanity just died a little.
Understanding What Went Wrong in the Psychology of it All
To win at the bargain, you need to know how to make fun. That is completely the point of the barter. Of course you are also choosing a price and an exchange of money, but it is primarily an interaction based in humour and building of relationship. So without further ado, here’s a step by step to stay in your power, and have FUN while bargaining.
When you greet your merchant, be friendly and cordial. Identify what you want to purchase. Preferably having scoped out prices elsewhere or from friends beforehand so you have a range for a fair price.
Looking at the item, smile, look at them, and ask for the price. Keep eye contact.
Wait for the response. Whatever they say, look at them like what they said was crazy while they say it.
You can say something like “really? are you sure sir?” and look at him again in the eyes and laugh a little.
Whatever he says, laugh in response, and maintain a happy vibe.
Offer you hand forward to hold whatever item you’re discussing.
Now holding the item, say to him, come on now, let’s not muck about, what’s your LAST/Best price? Smile and laugh.
Wait to see what he says. Don’t do anything but ask the same question or laugh if he tries to ask you for your price.
Whatever he ends up saying.. Your final deal is going to be 1/4 to 1/2 of this number depending on how well you push back.
Laugh and offer the item back to him. “No really sir, that’s not fair at all (that’s too much)” and laugh. keep eye contact.
- If he objects and stays the same price, put it back in his hand.
- If he drops his price a little bit, frown and offer it to him again.
“Well I did like it, I like it in this colour, no not the other colours, this one, but its just a little to much” point out the flaws of the item, and also what you liked about it, like you’re thinking it over.
“What was your lowest price sir?” wink and laugh like you have forgotten what he said before (Or ask in seriousness, but with a smile in your eyes looking at him)
Keep laughing and asking for a best price until you have hit 1/2 of the original asking price. Do not make a counter offer yet!
Avoid making a counter offer as long as possible, because once you’ve done this, you’ve basically agreed to pay half the difference between your two prices, and he’s got more leverage to raise the price a bit by not budging (which they can be very good at)
“Well it’s (not very good quality, not as nice as the other one we saw, but I’m here, and I want it now. I was only thinking to pay less than that”
At which point they will say “how much do you want to pay?”
“Well I was hoping to spend XXX (low ball your price to 10-20% of his asking offer) yes it will feel ridiculous, but if you do it smiling and looking at him, KNOWING and letting him know that you know that you are playing a game together. He’s going to act shocked, offended, and repulsed by your offer. He has to be, that’s his gig, especially since you’ve already shown him you know how to play the game. If he doesn’t play hard now he’s going to give you the item for too cheep..
This is often where real respect and admiration and friendship can happen, because you are now laughing together both acknowledging playing the game together, so you can laugh your way through the rest of it. By making it past this hurdle, you’ve gained “not just another tourist” status, and they will love you for it, maybe even invite you to have tea.
He’s going to say “that’s too little, give me X” which may be a little bit less than his previous asking price. If it’s the same price, use the “exchanging hands” trick to shift the power dynamic again.
Depending on how much he drops from his original price tells you how much it’s marked up.
If the item is 300 originally, and he drops to 250, and then to 220. You know that he has at least a margin of 200, and probably he paid 30 for the item. So you can laugh in a friendly way, lowball him at 30, naming the price, and barter back and for to 60-160 for the item..
Or pay 300 for it. Your choice!
The funny thing about Morococo, is that although people are constantly trying to bully you, if you overpay for something. (Say he asks for 300, and you give it to him without haggling, he’s just as likely to give you 50 in change anyways, and smile at you) But also with a sad look in his eyes, like you missed the point of the interaction.
Using Cash, Power Games and the little lie
I’ve got 20 minutes to find a shop, choose my loot, and bargain a price for the small cash I actually have on me. It’s the worst situation to bargain in, but I’m leaving tomorrow and it’s now or never to get my trinkets.
I choose my Fatima hands (a symbol of good luck and protection in Morocco), we package them up and I know I’ve fudged the order for my best bargain. My package wrapped up gives me no leeway to haggle with physical objects. And I’ve got a time limit coming up soon.
I ask him how much he wants, and he asks me for 600 dirham. Almost $80 Cad, and I truly balk. I’ve chosen 15 hands, of various quality, none of it guaranteed silver, though they always say it is, and it’s just way too much. I had planned to spend $5 and I have $30 in my wallet.
So I pull out all the stops, asking him for less, etc etc. Saying I only have 200 in my wallet, knowing I have a little bit more. He knows as a tourist I can always go get more money, so it’s an accepted lie. We open the package and take away a few of the trinkets, pairing it down to the few and required ones.
I have 5 minutes before Alex looses it, and we miss our ride to Paradise Valley. We’re stuck at 400, and I just don’t have it. I reach into my wallet pull out $200 and motion to the older man. I’ll pay this much for it right now, you’ll make the cash up on the next person, and I’ll thank you.
I don’t know if this will work. I’ve never tried such a lowball with just cash, but I can see his eyes flicker across the cash. He may not have made any sales yet today, or not enough to cover his expenses. He doesn’t know what will happen after this, and he’s come a long way to sell. He wants the cash, and I know it.
“You can take this now, or we can sit and have tea if you want.” (I say this to him, in reality I have less than 3 minutes to meet our ride. I almost have to walk away, but I can’t let him know that, because I need to appear to be able to continue the battle. Time is not on my side!)
I laugh as I offer tea. By saying this I’ve singled that this is my last offer, I will sit and drink tea for 30 minutes with him before I we would even talk about another price. I am set in my price and not moving and he knows it. This is what the offer of tea brings.
So, I hold the money out, my arm outstretch towards him, 200 at the end of my arm reaching out for him to claim as his.
The old man looks at me with a new respect. He stands there. He’s holding my Fatima hands, I want them. Ke knows I want them, which he can always hold over me. I want this price. He looks at my cash, then at his younger shopkeeper friend.
They say something back and forth in Arabic, and the younger man shakes his head. “Really, this is a crazy price, it’s not a good price for me, but I see you are a good woman, and my friend says we should say yes to you. But really it’s a crazy price.”
I smile broadly as I thank him profusely, and he hands me the package. I hand his older friend the cash, and we smile at each other with a wink. Our hearts hug, though the culture forbids us to do anything but shake hands. A camaraderie of having made it through the battle unscathed, and both slightly richer makes me feel happy and accomplished.
I feel I just got a steal of a deal. He has more money to feed his family tonight. We both win, and the experience was fun and funny all the way through. I head to the car, and arrive in perfect timing to hop in and head to our next adventure.
Also published on Medium.