I was posting the above picture of a street market in Cartagena, Colombia, on the BackpackU Instagram feed the other day, and realized something- I miss street markets. Random, chaotic, colorful, crazy street markets. There’s just something about roaming through a myriad of stalls and tables, perusing the locals’ arts and crafts, chatting with the chirpy vendors, munching on whatever street food happens to be popular in that part of the world... It’s fun, and coming from someone that typically HATES to ‘shop’, that’s saying something.
Part of the fun is that, in a REAL street market, everything is negotiable- from the price of a hand-knitted sweater to the cost of a can of Coke. Maybe that’s what it is- the added allure of being able to bargain for my own price, to use my superior skills of negotiation to get a good deal (HA! Yeah right...). Well, that, along with the unique arts and crafts one finds in these amazing treasure troves around the world.
A good street market has a little bit of everything- local arts and crafts, bootleg video games and DVDs, fresh produce and prepared food sections- ‘Anyting you want, mon!’ as I had one vendor in the Caribbean tell me (He may have been selling more than just knock-off Adidas gear...). That’s one of the coolest things about street markets- you never know what you’re going to find. Depending on where you are in the world, there’s anything from hand-woven hats and sweaters to miniature pyramids and sphinxes (sold in Egypt, made in China), from hand-carved masks and chess boards to knock-off Armani sunglasses and handbags (‘Same same, but different!’), from beautiful works of art to creepily preserved llama fetuses (apparently a big deal in Bolivia...).
On top of this RANDOM assortment of goods, you’ll almost always find that multiple stalls are selling the exact same things- right next to each other! Multiple stalls selling identical items, vendors vying for your attention at every turn, crowds of locals and travelers alike meandering through the aisles- it can be a bit overwhelming. But have no fear- BackpackU is here to coach you through the finer points of mastering the street market.
As mentioned, the first thing you’ll notice when walking through one of these markets is that there aren’t any prices, on anything. Typically, EVERYTHING is up for negotiation, and you’ve got to be on your game if you’re actually looking to buy. There’s an art to the back-and-forth bartering in these markets, and trust me, the locals have it mastered. In order to help you avoid getting taken for every last cent in your money pouch, here are a few tips and techniques that seem to work for me when entering the street market arena- at least, I think they do...(?)
1. Know your intentions before going in. If you are just perusing, or know you’ll be back on another night to actually ‘buy’, make that clear to the vendors, and avoid talking much about prices. Once you start discussing price, vendors assume you’re there to buy, and will attempt to get you into a negotiation. If you’re not buying, this is a waste of time for everyone involved. Save yourself the hassle (and them the aggravation) of pointless negotiating if you don’t actually intend to buy anything at that time.
2. If you ARE there to buy, scout out the scene first. These markets can be HUGE, with numerous stalls and tables selling the exact same things- get a lay of the land and make some mental notes before actually getting into negotiations. It’s a good idea to casually ask about prices so you have something to compare before circling back, but try to avoid too much haggling during the initial walk-through- you’ll end up in a negotiation before you’ve even seen what the rest of the market has to offer. The vendors know they may only have one shot at you, and aren’t afraid to apply the pressure if they feel like they’ve got a sale on the line.
3. Try to avoid stating your price first. Some form of ‘How much will you pay?’ will be one of the first things out of the seller’s mouth if they think you are interested in something at their stall. If you say your buying price first, unless you’re already well over their selling price, you’re not getting it for that, much less anything lower. Always answer that questions with a smile and a question of your own- ‘How much does it cost?’ This might go back and forth for a while, but try to hold out until they state a price- which will typically be ridiculously high- and then you’ll know what you have to work with. Some vendors will still refuse to state a price, so undershoot your buying price by 20-30% in the hopes that you can negotiate up to that price.
4. After they name their initial price, knock off 50% of what they ask- maybe even more- and start negotiating from there. As mentioned, if you get them to tell you how much it ‘costs’, they’ll typically overshoot their actual selling price by a long shot, so it’s then up to you to negotiate them down to what you’re actually willing to pay for it.
5. Even if you find EXACTLY what you’re looking for, or stumble upon a gem and suddenly can’t imagine life without it, try not to let them know you’re THAT interested- if they know you’re in love with something, they’ll jack up the price and will be less likely to come down. Keep calm, casually ask a price, continue to walk around and peruse the market to see if there’s anything similar, and make a plan from there. You can always circle back. (Buuuut- don’t wait too long! If the market closes or that vendor packs up, you might never find them again. It happens- 6 years later, and I STILL regret not buying that painting in Hong Kong... Ugh.)
6. Make sure you have various amounts of small notes before entering into the market- that way, you can pay with EXACT change. You’ll create an awkward situation if you haggle a vendor down to a lower price, and then have to ask them for change because you’ve only got large bills. Sometimes, they’ll claim not to have change, and then you’re stuck. Along these lines, don’t get your money out before a price is agreed upon- if they see large bills and/or that you are carrying a lot of money, they won’t budge on their higher price. Flashing money around in a street market- or ANYWHERE, for that matter- is NEVER a good idea anyway... Agree on a price first, and then discreetly get your money out, preferably in exact change.
7. Through all of this, remember to keep it light- shopping in street markets is all about the experience. Yes, you are trying to get a good price and avoid overpaying for anything, but remember to laugh, smile, and enjoy the experience. More often than not, a seller will be more willing to give you a better price if you’re friendly and engaging as opposed to cold and hard-nosed. Turn on the charm, play the game, and see what happens.
8. Most importantly, remember who you are negotiating with- haggling over 5 baht, 50 forints, or 5,000 dong is like arguing over the loose change on your dresser. Yes, there’s a sense of satisfaction from getting the price you want, but more often than not, those few cents mean a lot more to the seller than they do to you. If it’s something you really want, don’t let a few coins (or your ego) keep you from making the deal. My advice- always try to pay what you think it’s worth- to you.
Street markets are awesome. Thanks to them, not only do I now have a collection of keepsakes and artwork from the places I’ve traveled through, but I’ve also got an album of memories that go hand-in-hand with those things I’ve bought while traveling- the old cowboy in Patagonia that sold me my gaucho knife; the local boys outside the campground in Malawi where I bought my hand-carved ‘Big 5’; the ancient Andean woman that smiled at me when I tried on the alpaca hat I bought from her... The list goes on and on. As I always say- when it comes to traveling, it’s all about the experience, and simply walking through one of these markets is an experience in itself. Whether you’re actually out to buy or ‘just looking’, wandering through a street market is a great way to meet some locals, get a flavor for the community, learn a few words in the local language, and have a great time while doing so. You never know- you might end up with a few keepsakes of your own, and some new friends to boot...
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To find your own adventures in the Street Markets of the world, check out BackpackU's Destination Guides.