Shopping South of the Border (And Elsewhere)

I can’t speak for Canadians, but U.S. Americans never think about “bargaining” for a purchase they want to make. We pay the bill or the tab, believing that if we start to “barter” that we will be seen as “skinflints” or “cheap” or “strange.”  But south of the border, in most countries bargaining is not only rampant, but expected, except probably in “high end” stores. (This is also true in many African countries.)

I’ve spent considerable time in Mexico and Central America and my shopping information came from the wise lips of the Oregon State Dept. man who was the leader of my first group of high school students.

“Bargain. Be reasonable. Be polite. You can look pathetic, if you wish. Know that the seller won’t sell if it cuts too far into what might be called his ‘profit margin’ if he lived near New York’s Wall Street instead of in a very simple small home here.”

In fact, I found bargaining to be fun—a long way from my earlier thinking about it. We U.S. Americans never want to look “cheap” even if the hole in our pocket long ago dumped our last penny into the street.  But, here’s the script.  You see something you really are interested in.  Don’t show that interest. Walk on. Then return. Compliment the object. Here’s one of my examples.

I was in one of Mexico City’s parks when a large painting (probably 36 x 36 or so) caught my eye….a painting of a bullfighter and his target.  I complimented the artist for his skill, asked his price.  Looked wistfully at the painting, sighed, shook my head, and walked away.  I wanted that painting. So I came back, did the same routine again, but this time I told my own sad story about having children which took all my funds, but……  He told me about his numerous children; his story topped mine.  I shook my head again after he refused my latest offer and walked away.  Each time we played this little scene, he lowered his price; I raised mine.

Soon we were mentioning competing challenges to our funds:  I told him I had many children who were very expensive and left me with little funds to spend on things other than food and clothing.  He countered; he had more children than I did, and they were very needy. He lowered his price again; I countered by raising my offer.  He shook his head. I walked away.

(This bargaining business can take some time.  Also, don’t show interest too early…appear as though you need to be “coaxed” into buying the object—usually jewelry, material, clothes, or paintings. In “regular” stores, bargaining is not a shopping method, although you can try it there. The owner may have wanted to “get shet” of what had caught your eye, and begin lowering the price.  Each side always looks “regretful” and “appreciative” whether in the parks, along the sidewalks, or in “regular” stores.

The artist and I couldn’t come to terms, so I shook my head (by now my brain was rattling) and, sighing heavily, walked away.  My U.S. conscience started to bother me.  Maybe he did have all those children.  Fight that reaction!  And, by now, I dearly wanted that painting. I went back for the third time. He lowered; I raised. He lowered. I raised. My sighing nearly created hyperventilating on my part. (I’ve done this routine more than this once; by now I was expert, but not always successful. And always, when it came to other objects, unsure as to their intrinsic value.)

But this painting sang to me. A siren’s song. I plodded back to the artist.  Mexico City has a high altitude problem…..which means one walks slowly anyway, because of needing to breathe. The artist, who probably knew he had “a fish on the line” welcomed me back. We did our song and dance again—and to save your eyes, I bought the painting.  Never thinking about how I was to get it back to the U.S.—since he obviously “didn’t ship”—but via train, bus, and ultimately safely home, I managed. I ignored the scathing looks of the students and our leader. The rough frame it had been in was replaced and I was happy with my purchase.

This has been a long story, but most U.S. travelers complain about the high cost of “tourist items”—and one finds out they didn’t “bargain.”  Don’t take the “sticker price” on anything (except, again, in high end stores) as the “final price.”  And, you will “lose” some purchases, but you will at least have the knowledge NOT to pay the price that’s listed, without giving “bargaining” a chance.  It becomes fun. And friendly. And, if you can’t bargain successfully, at least leave the owner with a compliment and a smile.  (And that regretful shake of head.)