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Learning the art of the deal

Good humor is part of the art of fair bargaining, like this merchant’s attitude in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

david lyon for the boston globe

Good humor is part of the art of fair bargaining, like this merchant’s attitude in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

I like a good deal as much as the next person and I’ve tested my bargaining skills against some of the best hagglers in the world: the merchants in the souk of Marrakech, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and the street markets of Hong Kong. Truth be told, though, I often savor the experience long after I’ve grown tired of the embroidered blouse or Prada purse knockoff. Striking a deal, it turns out, is a great way to meet local people on their own turf and engage in a bit of good-natured give and take. These savvy sparring opponents have taught me a thing or two over the years. Here are a few tips:

Know the merchandise

A bargain is only a bargain if the goods are up to snuff. Before you hit the markets, peruse the high-end shops to get an idea of what is truly local and special. If there’s a local decorative arts museum, check that out as well. You’ll be better able to judge quality and decide on a reasonable price when you find something similar in the market.

Stay cool

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The bargaining process begins the minute you enter a market stall; most merchants will be attuned to your every movement. Even if the carved jade horses would look great on your mantel, don’t be over-eager. Examine other merchandise in the shop, and then — and only then — casually ask the price.

Start low

Striking a fair bargain takes time. If you want to win the shopkeeper’s respect, demonstrate that you are a worthy opponent by countering the initial price with a figure that seems ridiculously low. He or she will undoubtedly act offended, but it’s all part of the game.

Keep it light

Haggling is supposed to be fun and merchants are among the most clever and funny people in the world. You’re not in Macy’s anymore, so engage in a little theatrics. You’re shocked at the opening price and sad, so sad that it can’t go any lower. Smile, shrug, and look hopeful as you begin the process of meeting somewhere in the middle. Be playful, but firm.

Communicate by calculator

Language is not a barrier to bargaining. Carry a small calculator and ask the merchant to type in his opening price. Pass the calculator back the forth until you reach a deal. Theatrics still apply.

Buy in bulk

Merchants don’t want to lose a big sale, which means that you have a competitive advantage if you plan to buy several items. If the silk scarves would make great gifts for your friends and family, get the best price for one and then ask how much for five. Again, don’t take the first price.

Don’t be pressured

No matter how persuasive the merchant may be, you can walk away if you’re not satisfied with the price or simply change your mind. But don’t distract the shopkeeper from other customers if you have no intention of making a purchase and just want to have some fun. You may be on vacation, but she still has to make a living.

Know when to give in

It’s easy to get so caught up in the game that you forget your objective. Don’t refuse a merchant’s final offer on an item that you really want for the sake of a couple of dollars or foolish pride.

Beware the haggler’s high

Don’t get so caught up in the haggling experience that you return home with a suitcase full of small and inexpensive items that you don’t really need or want. It’s better to put your time, money, and skills into a couple of truly unique purchases.

Strike a fair bargain

In my mind, the whole point of bargaining is not to win or lose, but to reach a point of happy agreement. A merchant in Marrakech once paid me the ultimate compliment. “You bargain like a Berber,” he said after we had reached a deal on a silver necklace. By US standards, I had gotten a good deal. He had made a fair profit to help support his family. And both of us had fun. Bargaining doesn’t get any better.

Patricia Harris can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.
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