The blog of photographer Kim Ayres

Haggling in Marrakesh

"Español? Deutsch? Français? English?"

He must have noticed the fractional shift in my body language.

"You are from England?" he asks.

"Scotland," I say, then silently chide myself for replying and falling for the tactic.

"Ah, Braveheart! Come! Take a look! I give you very good price!"

I don't know what the newer part of Marrakesh was like, but we (see paragraphs 4 & 5 of the previous post, Camels in The Sahara) were based in the Medina - the older, original, walled part of the city - where the streets were narrow, labyrinthine, and often very crowded. Hundreds of small shops - some no bigger than the size of a double bed - spilling out from the walls, selling everything from toothbrushes to tourist tat. Fruit and vegetables were often laid out on sacks on the ground

A music shop - it might not be big, but the owner will give you a very good price on any of the instruments. It's a shame I didn't have a bigger luggage allowance for the flight home.

Presentation is everything.

Presentation isn't everything

Along these streets moved pedestrians, bicycles, hand carts, donkey-drawn carts, mopeds and occasionally the odd taxi or 4x4. It was surprising how quickly you developed a 6th sense for approaching vehicles. In fact, even on the actual roads there are precious little priority signs - the boldest muscle their way forward, while the adventurous dive in front of them. At first it seems chaotic and perilous, and yet despite the constant expectation of imminent collisions and bloodshed, I saw no accidents while I was there. Everyone's road sense appears to be heightened - the lack of imposed external rules meaning each person is responsible for their own safety, rather than relinquishing it to a bunch of give-way signs.

Who needs a moped when you have a donkey?

Then there were the souks, or markets, many of them all selling what appeared to be exactly the same thing. There were rows and rows of shops selling shoes, or entire areas dedicated to jewellery, or lampshades, or scarves, or olives. And if you wanted chicken for dinner, then they would take a live one from the cages behind and butcher it for you. In a warm climate where a culture has developed without refrigeration, leaving meat lying about for any length of time isn't a good idea.

Several different shops selling the same thing - no idea how you chose which one to deal with

And nothing had a price on it.

When you are used to browsing, lifting things off shelves, moving from shop to shop to compare prices, and only interacting with someone when you take the items to the till, this can be pretty confusing.

Can you see a price tag? Anywhere?

First of all, you have to express an interest. Having said that, expressing an interest can be interpreted as just walking within 20 yards of a place. If you glance even fleetingly at something the eagle-eyed shopkeepers will immediately pick up on it and try and engage you in conversation. And if you pause to look at something that might be of interest, then the shopkeeper will immediately become your best friend, love everything about you and the country you are from and insist they will give you the very best of deals.

They will be extraordinarily attentive and helpful in finding something you might like, from using long sticks to lift something hooked high up the walls to rushing to the shop next door to borrow back their stepladder. They want to make sure that what is eventually in front of you is the very thing you now cannot imagine living without.

So now you have to ask the price. They will give you "a very good price" based on the fact you are a tourist and have an expensive camera on your shoulder. And so the game begins.

You laugh at their outrageous presumption that you are a rich tourist who doesn't know you never pay the asking price, and tell them you would never pay that much.

They ask what you would pay for it.

You give them a much lower figure at which point they looked shocked, and will immediately tell you this is not some cheap imitation. If it's leather or stone jewellery, they will whip out a lighter and pass the flame over it to show you it is not plastic, but will knock up to 15% off their original asking price. (This can, occasionally backfire - one shopkeeper was so keen to demonstrate the Berber necklace I was looking at was not plastic that he forgot the stones were threaded together with a nylon string, which melted and the whole thing scattered across the floor. He insisted, however, it would only take him a moment to string it back together, as he was gathering up all the pieces...)

You tell them it's not worth that much to you, thank them for their time and hand them back the goods.

They ask what you would pay for it back in the country of your origin.

You either ignore the comment or tell them you are not in your country of origin, but perhaps you increase the amount you are prepared to pay.

They look pained and offer a further discount.

And so it goes, back and forth, until either you refuse to go any higher or they refuse to go any lower. And if you're lucky, then you reach a price you are both happy with.

Don't expect to purchase anything in less than half an hour.

Sometimes they look at you with a mild disgust that you have forced them to sell the item at such a low price - as though you are now responsible for the fact their children will not be able to eat anything other than bread for dinner tonight - although I think that has more to do with making you feel like you got a bargain, because you always leave wondering if you've just paid more for it that you should have.

But what is the right price? There are a few places which are "fixed price" shops - you pay the rate on the tags and no haggling - designed for tourists who are terrified of the process. But they are inevitably more expensive, taking full advantage of that fear.

Ultimately you have to go into any negotiation not wondering how much the item is objectively worth - how much it cost them plus an acceptable profit margin - but with a sense of how much that item is worth to you. Is that scarf worth £10 to you, or £5 or £20? Does it really matter if they are making £1 profit or £19 profit, if you have the item you want for a price you are prepared to pay?

In a way it's much like going to an auction - you have to be clear how much an item is worth to you, feel pleased if you got it for less, but not get caught up in the moment and end up paying more than you were prepared to.

It's a different world, a different culture, but that doesn't make it wrong.

Of course, to begin with it's scary - you don't know the rules and fear being ripped off. But once you start getting into it, it's strangely addictive and can be quite a lot of fun - provided you're not in a hurry...


Lori K Gordon said...

Kim, this is terrific writing-you have captured Marrakech to a "t", and with a good dose of humor-I was laughing out loud many times as I was reading.Yet you remained respectful and honest...may I share it on the cafe page please?

Kim Ayres said...

Lori - I'm delighted you enjoyed it and I'd be honoured if you wish to share the post :)

Allen Capoferri said...

For someone who dislikes shopping in his land of birth I think this is one place I'd stay away from, so I appreciate your fun photographs that much more. By the way...I love the Monty Python how to haggle scene.

Kim Ayres said...

Allen - The Monty Python Haggle Scene is an absolute classic, and was running through my head every time the haggling began :)

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