How to Haggle

Shopping in the U.S. is fairly regulated – There are few situations, outside of a car dealership, during which you haggle for price. Therefore, Americans travelling internationally can be quite ill-prepared when it comes to both the practice of haggling and in recognizing rip-offs.

jamaica haggling

Take shopping in Jamaica. Unfortunately, vendors in Jamaica see the American tourist as large, intellectually-challenged bag-of-money on legs. And they seem to use the same approach across the board, as if there is some school for the scam artist, with only slight variations to each act you encounter.

The “artists’ colony” at Dunn’s River Falls, just outside Ocho Rios, serves as a prime example. The visit to the falls is well worth the effort if one is already in Jamaica – A large winding stairway / trail leads you down the 950 foot waterfall to the beach below, then you climb the rocks of the waterfall back to the top, actually IN the waterfall. It’s a bit challenging… and absolutely fantastic.

Once the trek is accomplished, there are quite a few vendors that line the path out, all within huts along the park trail. It is impossible to walk through without each of these vendors attempting to butter-up the tourists and asking them to “do the blessing” of coming inside their particular make-shift “shop”.

One needs to prepare mentally for this, for it truly is a great exercise in keeping one’s wits about them. Below, I’ll relate the story of what happened to me, and the best way to interact with the vendors at each step of the “journey”:

The Butter Up
“Where you from? Oh, I LOVE that place… always want to go.”

The gigantic, well-lit, alluring smiles, the “come-hither” movements, the forced eye contact… the vendors lead a person to believe that they’ve met their new best friend given the conversation – Believe that they’ve comes across the nicest and most genuinely helpful people in the world.

So why are the hairs on the back of your neck standing up?

Take my interaction with “Lisa”. Lisa was beautiful – piercing eyes, glossy hair, and a huge, inviting smile. She approached us, asked where we’re from and made sure to mention that we were her first customers — that if she didn’t make this sale, she’d be unlucky all day. She behaved as through she was our one-person welcoming committee, acting like she was thrilled to have first-time visitors to her country. She led us along the side of her shop, aggressively insisting that we look in.

What the tourist should do:
If you are interested in purchasing something and see something in a particular vendor’s shop, go ahead and engage… with caution. If you do not, don’t waste the vendor’s time (or your time). You ARE NOT being rude if you keep walking — pleasantly state you’re not interested, and keep moving. They will be more upset if you waste their time with the “pleasant conversation” they’re having only to sell you something.

jamaica II

The “I Like You So Much I Want to Give My Stuff Away!” Manipulation
If your mama didn’t tell you that nothing is free in this world, then I’m here to enlighten you.

Through the buttery conversation described above, they find some excuse to offer you something for free. They make you feel like you’re the first person of your kind they’ve come across, they’ve SO enjoyed talking to you and, because you mean so much to them in these two life-altering minutes you’ve spent together, they want to give you a free gift.

Lisa gave us coffee bean necklaces. Another gentleman gave us a tiny drum, only to become angry and demand $8.00 for it when we didn’t want to purchase from him.

What the tourist should do:
Do not accept anything for free. Say plainly, “No thank you”, and say it again, each time you’re offered. For they will insist.

The only time to accept anything for free is at the end of the purchase, once your deal is done – And then you should recognize that you’re only getting something for free because you’ve been taken, and the vendor is trying to ease their conscience.

The Inflation of Price and Ego
So you see something you actually want to purchase, and you’re ready to talk price.

First of all, know that talking’s what you do here. If a vendor tells you something’s $40… you do not simply give them $40. This goes for retail establishments, as well. I even haggled, when invited to, at an airport shop.

The vendor will give you a ridiculously high price, along with some ridiculously nice compliments to distract you. They will also build themselves up: statements about their honesty, the value they’re giving you, how they’re the original artist of what you see (which they’re often not), etc.

With Lisa, when I showed interest in coffee she was selling, (which I had already seen at the hotel gift shop for $8.00), she told me she was selling it for $40.

Since I immediately knew I was being taken, I told her outright I’d seen the coffee at a lower price and tried to leave. She said this size coffee was larger, and she’d cut it to $22. Then $20. And I was out of there, refusing to engage with her anymore.

For the tourist:
DO NOT be the first person to throw out a price for the object. What you would pay for it is often considerably more than the vendor would want. Vendors will try to force your hand in giving a price, first.

Respond, “What’s your normal going price?”. Repeat this or pretend to disengage and walk away if a price is not given.

The Negotiation
This is where your eyes begin to cross.  High prices fly about, offers to pair two items for a better deal attempt to confuse, more free gifts are offered.

In the instance with Lisa, another American in the group engaged with her, perhaps feeling badly that I said “no”. They mentioned that they liked a painted turtle she had, and she told him plainly to “look her in the eyes… she’s not lying… she’s the only person on the island with them”.

She told him she’d make him a deal for two items – the coffee I’d wanted and the turtle. Then… and this is key… she insisted that he give the price he’d like to spend first. He said $40. She raised to $60, emphasizing the fine quality of the turtle. The man ended up spending $55 on the coffee and the turtle combined.

And the turtle was later seen with a starting price of $11 on it.

For the Tourist:
Know that the price you’ve been given is about 30-50% more than what they should actually be selling for. Cutting 50% to start is good. Never pay more than 30% less of what they offered, originally.

Beware the addition of items. Keep track of the value of each, individually, in your head, and DO NOT let the “combo meal” distract you or lead you to believe you’re getting a better deal.

jamaica III

I hope this has been helpful for those of you planning future trips or who struggle with haggling, in general. Many in our group became overwhelmed and were taken, then left to feel bad for hours out of their day. Hopefully this cuts through the nonsense and prepares those about to encounter the scams to better handle them.

Feel free to leave comments if you have advice or experiences! Would love to hear about them.


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