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How to Haggle in Southeast Asia

Tips for Negotiating and Getting the Best Prices on Anything

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Although a foreign process to many Westerners, good haggling skills are a must for making purchases in Southeast Asia.  Nearly anything without a fixed price can be negotiated, from guest house rooms to t-shirts and taxis.

Haggling doesn't have to be an uncomfortable interaction; local vendors not only expect it, they enjoy it!

Follow these simple tips for getting better prices and a few smiles on your trip.

1. Shop Around

Haggling in a market
Image © Greg Rodgers, licensed to About.com

Shopping around before making a purchase not only gives you an idea of where to start on the price, it may provide some leverage if a neighboring shop is offering the same item for less.  The golden rule of shopping in Southeast Asia is not to buy from the first shop you come to, chances are good that the same item is offered in several different places.

Ideally, buy away from tourist markets and shopping areas with high-volume where prices have been inflated by travelers that pay the first price without haggling.

2. Arrive Early

In many countries, the first sale of the day or evening is considered the "lucky sale" and vendors are more willing to compromise on prices.  If you know exactly what you wish to purchase, arrive as the vendor is setting up their cart in the evening for the night market.

3. Always Smile

Look at negotiating prices as a game and a chance to have a friendly interaction with a local.  Always smile, be positive, and never lose your cool.  Even teasing is allowed; start with an expression of aghast and shock when you are given an initial price.

4. Don't Appear Eager

Remember that the shopkeeper is keenly aware that if they don't close the sale, you will probably find the same thing at one of the neighboring stalls.  As they are showing you merchandise, act uninterested as if you could certainly live without the purchase.

Pointing out small flaws in the workmanship or quality is all part of the game.

5. Start Low

Always assume that the first price you are given is at least double what the hawker is hoping to earn from the sale.  Start negotiating by at least halving the first price, then working toward the middle in small increments.

Never answer the question "how much do you want to pay" - let the vendor set the first price!

6. Allow Them to Save Face

It is important to consider the concept of "saving face" when negotiating prices in Asia.  Always be willing to bend just slightly on the final price, allowing the vendor to "save face" by determining the final amount paid.

When haggling be flexible and polite; remember that the small difference in money saved probably means more to a local family in a tough economy.

7. Be Willing to Walk Away

The final weapon in your haggling arsenal is the power to walk away if a fair price cannot be agreed upon.  If the shopkeeper really wants to make the sale, they may chase you out of the shop with a better offer.  Be confident that you can find the item someplace else or can live without it.  If you return to the same shop after walking away don't even attempt to haggle!

In high-volume tourist places, the shopkeeper may not bother to chase you; they have learned that some sucker will come along later and pay the first price.

It is considered very bad form to come to an agreement on a price and then not make the purchase in the end.

8. Haggle in the Local Language

Without fail, the best way to negotiate is in the local language if you can do so.  Even only learning the words for "expensive" or "discount" can help land better prices.  At least attempting to speak the local language shows that you are interested in their culture and more savvy than the average tourist.

Unless you are proficient in the language, a small calculator or notepad will help to prevent any misunderstandings about the final price.

9. After the Sale

Never let a hawker make you feel bad because they say that they have lost money.  Local vendors do this every day and are in the business to make money; they would never agree on your price if they were actually taking a loss!

As part of "saving face", appear very pleased with the purchase that you have made and always thank the shopkeeper for such a good price.

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