Spring 2009

Let’s Make a Deal

The protocols of haggling

Herant Katchadourian

“There is no point haggling with the Hong Kong Chinese,” advised my friend, “You might just as well pay what they want and not waste your time.”

“If what you say is true,” I replied, “there must be no Armenians living in Hong Kong.”

At the time, I was a brash young man, proud of my Armenian bargaining genes further honed by my upbringing in Beirut. It was the early 1960s and we were on an ocean liner approaching Hong Kong, a shopper’s paradise where you could have a suit custom-tailored overnight. My friend wanted to buy a Nikon camera, but despaired of the bleak prospect of getting a good deal. I told him to leave the haggling to me. All I needed from him was to find the same camera among the passengers and borrow it for an hour.

Armed with the borrowed Nikon hanging conspicuously around my neck, we made our way into the warren of shops crammed with photographic equipment. I told my friend to keep quiet and act indifferent. We settled on a store and I stood in front of the owner, looking casually at the rows of cameras while he made futile attempts to engage me in conversation. Finally, I saw the Nikon we wanted, but moved my eyes languidly past it to one of the most expensive cameras and inquired about the price. With a bright smile at the prospect of a big sale, the owner pointed to the price tag. I told him I could read the sign myself—what I wanted to know was what he would actually take for it.

“This very good camera,” he started expansively.

“Yes, very good camera,” I agreed.

“Japanese, very clever. Make good camera.”

“Yes, Japanese very clever,” I agreed, “but Armenians more clever.”

He did not get the joke, but suppressed his bafflement to stay on target. So he moved from one tack to another to soften me up: the rent of his shop was killing him; he had six needy children to look after; his mother-in-law was sick, and so on. I let him do all the talking, except for asking after each sally, “How much?” When he countered with a lower price, I would say, “Too much.” (I learned this tactic from a friend of my father who bought textiles in Manchester for Beirut tailors. He spoke no English except for “How much? Too much.” He drove the English dealers to distraction until they capitulated and wrote down a figure he would accept).

I kept up the haggling until the poor man appeared to be on the verge of tears. It was time to strike. I pointed to the Nikon, as if I had just noticed it, and asked in exasperation, “Okay, how much for this camera?” He had, no doubt, noted the camera hanging from my neck and assumed that I was not about to buy another one—it must be a trick to gauge his prices. So he came up with a ridiculously low offer for the Nikon. After a pregnant pause, I said, “Fine. I will take it.” He was stunned, but recovered his wits enough to hand me the Nikon with a rueful look of resignation. I told my friend to pay him what I thought would be a reasonable price, rather than the absurd figure the owner had just offered. We shook hands, and parted friends.

• • •

This interchange may sound like a shameless contest in deception, but actually we were engaged in an honorable ritual with its own rules and protocols. Thus, while we dissembled furiously and tried to cajole, seduce, and bully each other into compliance, neither of us actually lied. The tale of my opponent’s woes was pure theater and we both treated it as such.

Haggling is a voluntary exercise. Buyer and seller can break off negotiations at any time, but they do share a common goal. One has something to sell that the other wants to buy, so it is in their mutual interest to reach an agreement. Their interests diverge only when it comes to setting the price, hence the need to haggle.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Le Marchand de tapis au Caire, ca. 1887.

Let us assume that the merchant and I both wanted a fair deal rather than to rob each other. What is a fair deal? Is it simply a matter of profit margin? Should that be a fixed percentage in order to be fair? What if the merchant has bought the goods on the cheap? Does that obligate him to sell it below market price? What if one seller is prosperous and another on the verge of bankruptcy? Or one buyer is rich and another poor? Should such personal considerations matter? Most Westerners would think not, whereas non-Westerners are more likely to think they should. This is part of a more basic difference in making moral judgments. Western moral rules tend to be impersonal, objective, and absolute—one size fits all—whereas in cultures in Asia and Asia Minor, “right” and “wrong” are more subjective, interpersonal, and conditional—they depend on circumstances.

Many Westerners are exasperated by haggling; a bad odor clings to the very word. Bargaining, on the other hand, does not carry such a burden, and negotiation is positively dignified. The OED defines haggling tersely as “dispute as to terms” and equates it with wrangling, which involves “angry, noisy, and prolonged dispute.” The earliest use of haggler dates to the early seventeenth century and refers to a person who “stickles in making a bargain or coming to terms.” Bargaining is an older word, going back to the fifteenth century, and is also defined in pejorative terms (“…built your house with beggary, bargenyng and robberye”). The early uses of negotiation link it with trade. Its modern meaning is, “To hold communication or conference … for the purpose of arranging some matter with mutual agreement.”

If these three words essentially refer to the same process—discussing the terms of a purchase or contract—how do we explain their hierarchic distinctions? Why does negotiation invoke images of diplomats discussing treaties and financiers brokering complex business deals, while haggling is what swarthy, sweaty rug dealers do in the bazaar? Is it a matter of cultural prejudice? The Turkish word for haggling/bargaining is bazarlek—the way business is conducted in the bazaar. Turks make no distinction between the two terms. Are their transactions fundamentally different from Wall Street wheeling and dealing, or is the difference mainly one of style?

Americans’ avowed abhorrence to haggling does not mean that there is no haggling in the US. There is an active corps of American hagglers who, according to a recent New York Times article, manage to bargain their way to lower prices on their cars, credit card rates, hotel rooms, electronics, appliances, medical services, and even hot dogs.[1] What is different is the protocol. American hagglers do not dicker aggressively for a lower price; they ask for a discount because they are good customers, or they appeal to the seller’s goodwill. The operative phrases are, “Can you help me?” or “What can you do for me?” They invoke special circumstances: “It’s a birthday gift for my son, can you give it to me for less,” or, “It’s our wedding anniversary, can you upgrade the room?” By saying “I’d be grateful,” you cast the seller in the position of a magnanimous soul. And as with all forms of haggling, you create a personal bond in order to break loose from the impersonal lock of the fixed price.

The selling of merchandise at fixed prices—the antithesis of haggling—is now taken for granted in the West, but it is a relatively new practice. Traditionally, people have conducted their business through negotiations of one sort or another. The idea of fixed price marketing started with the development of department stores. Traditionally, shops specialized in one type of product: you bought your shoes in shoe stores that sold nothing else. Public markets were segregated as well, with particular areas dedicated to shops selling the same goods. But by the 1850s, Aristide Boucicaut’s Bon Marché store in Paris had evolved into the first department store, displaying a wide variety of goods in various “departments” under one roof. And everything had a fixed price, a model that first appeared in the United States in 1861 at John Wanamaker’s Oak Hall store in Philadelphia.

I have lived in the United States for fifty years, and as I have grown older, I have lost some of my taste for haggling. I will still haggle if I have to, but I no longer do it for sport. Given the enormous discrepancy between the standards of living in America and the Third World, it seems greedy and selfish when traveling to haggle over a few dollars. I saw the most egregious example of this when I was on a trip in the Middle East with an affluent American group. A little girl began to follow us around selling scarves for a dollar each. One of the women wanted me to bargain with the girl to get two scarves for a dollar. When I refused, the woman said defensively that it was “not the money but the principle” she cared about. But what is the principle that justifies haggling with a child who is trying to eke out a living?

Despite long experience, I have had my own mishaps with the ethics of haggling. On one occasion, I found a pair of carpet-bags in the provincial Turkish town of Malatya. The owner wanted $40 for each. I offered $20. “You came from Istanbul,” he said, “and you know what these sell for. Are you doing this to break my heart?” He was right. A few days earlier, I had bought several of these bags from a wholesaler friend for $100 each. I apologized and paid the man what he wanted.

On the other hand, what are the alternatives? One option is to haggle only when the time and effort are worth it, for instance, when you are buying a thousand-dollar rug, not a one-dollar scarf. Or you can make a take-it-or-leave-it offer and walk away if it does not work. Do not bluff and do not go back. It is demeaning. The downside of this is that you may lose the chance to buy what you wanted. (And if you are like me, you will regret it for the rest of your life).

If you are going to haggle, then at least do it right. There are no hard and fast rules to follow, but there are some useful general guidelines. Like all rules, they work best if they are true to your own style of dealing with others, not imitative.[2]

There are certain key assets that seller and buyer bring to the bargaining table. The seller knows what he paid for the merchandise and the profit margin he needs to make it worthwhile to sell it. Your strength as a buyer is knowing how much you want to buy the item and how much you are willing and able to pay. You cannot read the seller’s mind, but you should be able to read your own. Remember that unless you really like or need it, nothing is a good bargain, no matter how cheap it is.

The more you know about the object you are buying, the more effectively you will be able to bargain. Do not buy the first rug you like in the first shop you enter. Look at other rugs, check other shops. Think of it as going through a museum, looking at paintings.

Take your time. Effective haggling cannot be rushed. Give the merchant a chance to speak his piece (including his fabricated tales). However, you must also maintain a certain tension by hinting that your time is limited. (Look at your watch, even if you know what time it is).

Respect the seller and he will respect you in return. Don’t argue, raise your voice, or challenge the veracity of what he says. Establishing the truth is not the point. Never denigrate the quality of the merchandise. If you think the rug is a piece of junk, you should not be buying it.

Avoid getting into technical arguments. If you say, “That red color looks chemically bleached,” the seller will refute it. If you say, “I don’t like the red,” he cannot do so.

Most importantly, get into the spirit of the occasion. Haggling is part of the local culture, no less than the exotic food you eat. That will require that you set aside your preconceptions and prejudices and lose yourself for a short while in a novel world. That is what makes the experience priceless.

  1. Alina Tugend. “Shortcuts for Champions of Haggling, No Price Tag Is Sacred,” The New York Times, 19 January 2008.
  2. The following is based in part on John B. Gregorian, Oriental Rugs of the Silk Route: Culture, Process, and Selection (New York: Rizzoli, 2000).

Herant Katchadourian is emeritus professor of psychiatry and human biology at Stanford University and former president of the Flora Family Foundation. His book Guilt: The Bite of Conscience is forthcoming from Stanford University Press.

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