Last price

Image: Cessna152 travelblog.org

Image: Cessna152 travelblog.org

I recently came across this article, where the editor of Dubai-based HotelierMiddleEast.com bemoans the practice of bartering (aka bargaining or haggling).

He’s making a serious point, about the madness of hotels’ imposing absurdly inflated “rack rates” on walk-in customers while offering cut-price “corporate rates” to agents, but I’m more interested in why one of the main bugbears for Westerners visiting the Middle East is the lack of clear pricing – on everything from hotel rooms to market vegetables.

In the West we’ve got used to sticker prices – a single figure which rolls in all the costs of production, distribution, business overheads, profits – everything, into one final, unshakeable, legally enforceable price.

Just about everywhere else, prices are open to negotiation. Regular customers get discounts; newcomers (or foreigners) can expect to pay more. Buying and selling – especially in the Arab world – is a sociable process, where human interaction (chatting about family, drinking tea) often matters at least as much as economics. Prices are fluid; instead, each side weighs up value. How much does the buyer value the item? How much does the seller value getting that item off his hands?

All this leaves a lot of visitors floundering.

Or that’s my impression. I’d be interested to hear other opinions – do you hate haggling? If so, why? Isn’t it all just part of the experience of another culture? Perhaps you’ve tried haggling and got it horribly wrong? Or maybe some brave souls have tried to haggle at home – any success? Was the effort worth it? All stories welcome!

7 Comments

  1. David Whitley

    Have you been seeing my girlfriend behind my back? Interestingly, her comment on the tipping debate rumbling on my blog (http://www.grumpytraveller.com/2009/07/27/tipping-etiquette-and-%e2%80%98service-not-included%e2%80%99-the-socially-acceptable-add-on-charges/) was “Well, you would say that. You’re English.”

    Her point was that the standardised pricing and pay the clearly labelled asking price system is an entirely western construct. And she’s right. I don’t like tipping and haggling because of the way I was brought up.

    Transparent, set pricing is certainly more time-efficient, and I much prefer to be able to browse through things knowing what they cost. I also have a rather rigid haggling style (decide what I want to pay, and stick to it, even if the salesperson insists on playing the higher-lower game).

    But would I feel the same way if I’d have been brought up in the Middle East/ Africa? I doubt it. As you say, different cultures, but in my utterly biased opinion, the Western method is better.

  2. Matthew Teller

    That’s alright – self-declared bias works! It’s the “I’m not biased but…” variety that causes trouble.

    As for seeing your girlfriend, well, erhmm, I couldn’t possibly comment.

  3. Nathan Midgley

    Haggling’s like surfing: something I’d like to be able to say I do but can’t face the humiliation of learning. Like David, it makes me uncomfortable, so I suck at it, and knowing I suck makes me all the more uncomfortable.

    But I’d have thought your upbringing or your career matter as much as your nationality. Some people are just at more ease with negotiating.

  4. Matthew Teller

    I like that. Haggling IS like surfing – you’re never quite sure what’s playing under the surface, and the potential to come a cropper and end up looking like a prat is never far away… But then again, get it right and you feel good all day…

  5. slowtraveller

    We used to haggle in the West too – before life got far too urbanised and hurried. In the Middle East people still have time – time to stop, chat, have a cup of chai…and haggle. Which is one of the reasons I like travelling there. So, as I’m in favour all things slow (except my broadband internet connection) I vote for haggling!

  6. Matthew Teller

    Spot on, Gail.

  7. drthrottling

    I love a good haggle…
    Travelling through Indonesia for 8 months it ended up being the key to learning enough of the language to really enjoy my trip. The amount of people I met who felt simply out of their depth was huge though… a number of them felt it ruined their travels and made them feel uncomfortable.
    My travel agenda was never set in stone so if I ended up spending an entire day in a market then so be it!

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