Haggle Your Way to Bargains
by Adel Murad
in Egyptian Markets Haggling has become an art form in Egypt. Many tourists would rather do anything than haggle over the price of a gold cartouche while on holiday in Egypt. But, from the local point of view, haggling is expected, sometimes encouraged, as a way of communication and human contact. It is also legal in Egypt to haggle, bargain and ask for a discount.
As with any type of negotiation, there is a protocol to haggling, and many ways to make sure you don't pay over the odds. But the basic skill is to have some inside knowledge about the value of what you are buying and put a limit of what you are prepared to pay. Always look at the price tag, as the maximum required, not the minimum. Then set a minimum price and negotiate for some medium price in between.
Haggling is effective if you are buying high value items, such as gold and jewelry, but with low value goods it is not worthwhile the time and effort; it becomes more or less a social gesture. If you pay with cash, not a credit card, you should have more leverage for getting a good discount. Shops in Egypt prefer cash. Paying with dollars sometimes helps secure a bargain.
There used to be a golden rule of offering half the asking price, but that rule has grown unreliable over the years, as the asking price could be treble the real value or just a fraction above. If you want to obtain a bargain, be prepared to invest some time and have a rough idea what the item is worth. Ask some local friends (not necessarily your tour guides) how much would they pay for such an item, and then allow a fraction above that as a margin for being a tourist.
When I return to Egypt, I always relax my haggling rules because shopkeepers know instinctively that I live abroad and raise the price. Ideally, you should take an Egyptian friend to buy for you, but since that is not always feasible, do some homework. Shop around. Never buy at the first shop; you can always come back. Shopkeepers will try to persuade you that they offer you the best value, but will not be offended when you say you want to look around and would come back. Timing is also important. You stand a better chance for getting a bargain late at night than earlier in the day.
When buying gold haggle about the price per gram not the price per item. For other valuables, you can always say a friend bought a similar item, for less. Negotiate only with those who can make an instant decision, not with c ounter assistants. If you are not sure, ask to see the manager or owner.
If you are buying more than one item haggle for the lot, a discount is expected for buying in bulk. So, it makes sense to buy as a group of three of four, together. Also, if you can point any defect in the goods, such as poor finishing on a dress, or a fading color on material, you should be entitled to money off the asking price.
If you are an independent traveler, or on a budget, you can apply the same haggling principles to booking hotel rooms, and to obtaining other services. Sometimes it is easier to haggle over the telephone than face to face. You can even haggle before coming to Egypt by telephone or by e-mail. For instance, if you are staying for a long period (more than two weeks) or you are reviewing the hotel so that a large numbers of tourists may follow, be sure to let the hotel know this information.
There are places where haggling is not the norm, and these include supermarket chains, where the stock is computerized, fruit and vegetable markets where the prices for tourists are so marginal, they are not worth discounting. Egyptians used to joke about Russians in the 1960"s who took haggling to extremes; they asked for a discount on bread which was subsidized by the government and sold at two loaves a penny.
Prices, however, have to be put in perspective. Egypt is still relatively cheap, at least for tourists who exchange US dollars. The local purchasing power is double that of the dollar abroad. Egyptian pounds (LE) are exchanged at rates above LE 3.5 to the dollar (Last quarter 2000). To make your life simple, you can draw a line about what is not worth haggling about. Items below LE 50 are not usually worth the effort or the waste of precious holiday time. If you still think an item is overpriced, then offer your own price and walk away. This will put the vendor in a yes or no situation.
The language could be a handicap in dealing with many traders in Egypt, although increasing numbers of merchants know at least one foreign language beside Arabic. But, it is equally a problem for the vendor as it is for the buyer. So, do not feel at a disadvantage. In these situations, the phrase books and the time and effort in learning the basic Arabic expressions become invaluable. You will be surprised at how you can haggle within a limited vocabulary.
Be kam? (How much?)
Khamseen geneeh (LE 50)
La'a, da ghaali awy. Mumkin talateen? ((No, that's very expensive, is it possible for LE 30)
Laa mush mumkin... Arbaeen? (Not possible LE 40?)
Laa, ma'aya talateen bas. (No, I only have LE 30)
So, here you are. He can agree to sell for LE 30, or you can find another LE 10 in your pocket and clinch the deal. In most cases though, the LE 10 is worth more to the small Egyptian trader, than it is to the tourist. I know that most tourists to Egypt are not rich, but in relative terms are still much better off than the average Egyptian. That of course excludes the big local traders and mega businessmen of the hotel weddings' fame.
So, be careful, know what you want, and haggle hard to get what you want for the right price. Otherwise, don't waste your time haggling over trivia or buying stuff you do not need. As most travelers know, the best bargains of holiday time often become clutter around the house, and end up in car boot sales. So, after all the haggling, it may be worth paying a little over the odds to get exactly what you want.
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Last Updated: June 5th, 2011