22 March 2011 by Julienne du Toit

The Gentle Art of Haggling

I remember wandering through a Madagascan market, among the shrewdest hagglers I’ve encountered in a long time.

I picked up a little raffia something. Instantly the stall owner was at my side, his eyebrows raised. He spoke almost no English - I was just about to find out how much, in fact. And I spoke no Malagasy and only a smattering of French.

Neither were needed. The stall owner whipped out a calculator and typed in a number. Showing it to me, he then trotted out his only English words:  “But you may dispute!” Now the calculator came back to me, for a counter-offer.

We settled on something halfway between our individual offers and were both satisfied.

It’s not always quite as simple here in South Africa. Sometimes, in a very commercial market, you can haggle as much as you like. The traders there know the value of their goods, and have a lot of leeway in their bargaining power. They’re streetwise.

But sometimes you might come across a carving or a woven object in a deep rural area that appeals to you deeply. Here you may be haggling with the creator of the object, and here you should go gently.

In some cases, the creator will have no real idea of the market value of his art and underprice it. In such cases, I gently insist on paying more than asked.

Also, if you haggle too much, he or she may settle on a price that is way less than the craft is worth, just to put food on the table.

Be respectful. Engage them in conversation and ask a little about their lives. Where they live, for example. How many children they have.  How long it took to make this object you crave.

Then make your decision and your offer.  Keep compassion top of mind.

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