"Ten dollars", the man suggested, his outstretched hand holding the bracelet I had mistakenly let my eyes linger on. I knew the bracelet was worth perhaps three dollars, but hey, who can blame him for trying to make a bigger profit?
"I can do five dollars", I replied in Spanish.
Whether in the Dominican Republic (where the above conversation took place), Italy, or Korea, when shopping at in overseas markets, I stick to one rule: Offer prices that benefit the seller, but don't be a fool with your money.
I'm not afraid to haggle. In fact, I enjoy it. I understand that as an foreigner, I will often get higher prices than a local, and that's okay as long as I can negotiate the price to something that is fair for both of us. It's easy to see where the seller is coming from, and I'm not offended that they would try to make extra money from the American woman that is passing their booth. Why not try to make more money if the customer is willing to spend it?
Markets are always on the top of my list when I am traveling to a new country. I find it to be one of the best places to listen for the heartbeat of the culture and people you are living alongside.
When we moved to Korea, I was thrilled to find that there is a market literally 30 feet from our apartment.
After navigating many cities, making countless mistakes and tweaking how I "market" each time, I've finally put words to shopping overseas with ease.
Well, as easy as shopping in an foreign country can be.
- Try to avoid things without price tags
- Or, at least avoid them until you know how much something is worth in that particular country (ask me sometime how Nate and I accidentally spent $30 on beans). You are also more likely to get ripped off when the item does not have a price tag. It gives the seller the freedom to quote different prices based upon what they see. Great for them, but not always the best for your wallet. You also want to be sure that the price you are offering is fair, and you can't do that until you know how much that apple, bracelet, whatever is worth.
- Find out whether or not it's culturally appropriate to haggle and negotiate prices.
- You don't want to suggest a lower price if it would not be polite. It would be comparable to trying to haggle with a cashier at Target. However, if it is common to negotiate, then chances are you will be able to come to a mutually agreeable amount. However, like I mentioned before, it's important to remember that vendors are supporting both their families and the local economy with the money you give them, so be fair in your endeavors. I once heard a man trying to get a painting down to $2.00, and then walk away frustrated that he could not get "local price". Sorry, but you are staying in a hotel the woman you are haggling with could only dream of. You are certainly NOT a local. Also, if you are going to attempt to haggle, etiquette often dictates that you know enough of the language to do so. I will haggle in Spanish, however it took me a while to haggle in Korean since my language skills just weren't there yet, and I didn't want to waste the vendors' time. Although, I will say that sometimes the best bartering chip is just a few seconds of silence and contemplation after they tell you the price. Once while is shopping at the market in Korea, I accidentally haggled with a woman we were buying plants from, simply because I was trying to figure out what the heck she was saying, and she thought I was unsatisfied with the price. Oops.
- Try street food.
- While serving food outside in open air market might not be super familiar, don't shy away from it. Chances are, you won't get sick, and you'll be able to enjoy cheap, delicious food. It's a great way to try new dishes! Yesterday at the market we had these delicious fried pastries. Oh. My. Gosh. A different day, we were walking by a vendor that yelled: "Waygook!", which means "foreigner" in Korean. We turned, and she shoved these green sticky things in our hands and told us to eat them. I still have no idea what they were, but they were sweet like candy and so tasty (one strange perk of being a foreigner here is that people keep giving us free stuff, just because. I've got a small collection of bracelets, candies, and skin care samples that people have just given us).
- Be aware of local holidays.
- Last weekend was Chuseok in Korea, and it's customary to buy fruit as a gift. As a result, the prices were astronomical the days leading up to the holiday, in both the superstores and markets. Prices tend to rise right before a holiday, and drop immediately after(think Black Friday). We didn't buy fruit the week before Chuseok, but took advantage of the many sales and falling prices right after. This knowledge is especially useful if you are going to be overseas more than a couple weeks.
We've found almost all of the produce and eggs that we use at our market here in Sang-mu. I love seeing the dirt on the potatoes, the buckets of fresh fruit, and piles of onions and garlic. There is also a huge amount of herbal remedies being sold at markets, and vendors that will brilliantly pantomime exactly what the medicines do for you. There's something about buying from and thanking the woman who is digs up the garlic you buy, the man who raises the chickens your eggs come from, and the family that bakes the pastries you are enjoying. I will forever be a market fanatic.