Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Ritual of Bargaining

“The rhetorical exchanges go on between shopkeepers and prospective customers in the bazaar every day. The shopkeeper usually talks to the other person like a member of the family, calling him or her brother, mother, father or uncle to suggest intimacy. By mentioning that the shop has been recommended by a mutual acquaintance, the prospective buyer intimates that he could become a regular customer.

If he moves on to specifics and asks the price, he is given a politely non-committal reply. The aim is purely to create a friendly atmosphere. It is only after long hesitation that the salesman names his price, which is invariably refused. In the meantime, he – an expert on human nature – has deduced the customer’s status from his name and accent, clothes and various remarks. He soothes the ‘indignant’ customer by saying that other people of the same calibre – which of course, he exaggerates flatteringly – have bought the same thing. For tourists, a pile of postcards from America or a visitor’s book with tributes from satisfied customers is always brought out at this point. When the deal is concluded, he emphasizes his own selflessness by protesting that he has made nothing or has even made a loss.

The customer’s aim is to establish a lasting contact with a reliable dealer, so that he can save time in future by avoiding lengthy negotiation. In Yemen, for example, they use gestures to prevent anyone else overhearing. Both hands are covered with a cloth. They communicate by moving their fingers, each finger symbolizing a number, and express refusal or agreement with their eyes. Iranian carpet dealers usually mention how much they have – allegedly – paid for an item, establishing a minimum price in advance.

Sometimes buyers send their wives to bargain, in the (usually justified) hope that gallantry will make the shopkeeper more generous. The time of day is important too. In the early afternoon, the shopkeeper’s enthusiasm for verbal sparring is blunted by the heat and often also by hashish or qat. But the best chance of a bargain is just before evening prayer. According to an old convention, the last customer has to be given a discount. Once a deal has finally been concluded, the shopkeeper still has one last trump card: he suggests that the customer might pay another time, indicating trust in his creditworthiness. It is a gesture that seldom fails”*.

*Weiss, Walter M. & Westermann, Kurt-Michael, The Bazaar : Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World, Thames & Hudson, 1998


Anil P said...

How very true. It is an art, isn't it?

And great fun to watch so long as it is not me doing the bargaining :-)

kiran said...

Anil, thanks for leaving a comment. I just realised that one may be experiencing either the presence or the absence of bargaining in our own worlds of shopping - there seem to be so many faces to it.

radha said...

Nice blog. Why is it not being updated?

hummingbird said...

I don't seem to have anything to say. I guess it won't be too long before I will again. But, Radha, I just read your blog and loved your recent posts!