A Small Treatise on Tourist Shopping

Here are some of my thoughts on street vendor shopping – particularly in tourist areas:

Don’t be afraid to skip a store. In super touristy areas there will be similar goods in most stores, so you can get a feel for the area without feeling obligated to stop. If you really miss a store, meander back.

Master your peripheral vision – practice looking at things which are not right in front of you. For example, you’re reading this blog post. Don’t look away from these words, and see how much detail you can pick out in your immediate field of vision. Is there a rum and coke to your right? How much is left? Are there any people sitting near you? Practice being able to look at something without looking right at it.

(This skill is helpful when you want a rough idea of what’s inside a store, without stopping to actually see what’s there. Even better is if you can get good at looking at things in the distance – then you’ll know what you’re passing with greater accuracy)

Keep moving. In many places, stopping is a sign of interest. Interest is a sign of weakness. It sounds harsh, but if you were making pennies on every Hello Kitty pillow you sold, you’d quickly learn to separate the weak ones from a flock of potential buyers. You don’t have to run or anything. A feigned disinterested stroll will do, blithely tuned out to the chorus of calls to stop and shop.

– Having said that, if you see something you like, you can stop. Tune out the shopkeeper, who will insist that he’s left a fist-sized real jade Buddha just sitting out on the counter by the chopstick collections. The pressure might be intense and intrusive. I went to buy a little fu dog necklace in a store, and the woman “attending” me kept hurriedly shoving other necklaces at me, in an attempt to rush me and somehow make me buy more. On the other end of the spectrum is the overly-nice attendant who “helps” you by up-selling whatever he or she thinks her or she can get away with, gently (but constantly) suggesting additional purchases.

You just have to be in your own mind until you have finalized your decision. If you ultimately decide you don’t want something, walk away. You can smile if you want, or shake your head, but walk firmly away.

If you know a foreign language, use it. Even if it’s just a few sentences. It creates breathing space for you, as a vendor might not know how to press you if you’re not using Chinese or English.

If haggling is expected, haggle. You can do it on your own – pick a persona that suits you:

  •  The happy traveler (easy) – This place is great! You don’t know what’s fair, but you do know that’s too much! I’ll just keep walking, but thank you! I like this persona because it plays up the whole “ignorance is bliss” angle.
  • The seasoned traveler (medium)– Come on now, we both know this game. Here’s what I’ll give you, and you know it’s fair. A bit trickier, because this persona can come across as tired instead of knowing, which actually makes the shopkeep feel more confident about not budging.
  •  The grumpy gift buyer (difficult) – I don’t need this, buddy. I can keep walking. This is the most difficult persona, in my opinion, because there’s not a lot of wiggle room. If you start put out, you can’t get more put out. It forces your hand.

If you feel bad about negotiating down a price, consider this: Some places will mark up a price into the hundreds of percent higher when they see you. You shouldn’t have to pay 500% of what something is worth just because you’re assumed to have money.
I will admit I have trouble with some of these, which is why I’m sharing them. I’ve gotten really good at the looking without looking thing, especially since my haggling skills have declined. I just don’t have the energy to argue over three or four dollars. It feels low, to press for one more quarter off a five-dollar sale. But haggle we must, for if we don’t haggle, we’re encouraging stores to jack up prices because we’ll pay them. And that’s not fair to the future shoppers.
My dad taught me to always consider where the money goes. Remember: it’s your money, and you get to decide how to spend it, not them. Don’t let yourself be rushed, don’t let yourself feel guilty, and don’t feel obligated to buy something.
Good luck and have fun!



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