Let's Make a Deal
In the hectic dog-eat-dog streets of Kathmandu there are some real artists working.
It doesn't matter the quality of their product. Usually it's rubbish, but this doesn't detract from their artistry in the least. In fact, it may enhance it. I am in awe.
A scruffy looking guy who could get an academy award in the role of a shifty character approaches.
"Hey. Some tiger balm?"
"What? Huh. I was thinking about buying some. How much is it?"
"Special price today for you, only 350 rupees."
"No, too much."
"What? Thats a very good price. What's your best price?"
Mugsy laughs out loud as if I just told the world's funniest joke ever, perfectly. His laugh cuts through the cacophony of bad engines, ear-splitting horns and yelling like a knife through soft butter. After he's thoroughly enjoyed his belly laugh, he turns on me suddenly.
"That's a good one. I pay twice that much just to buy it. Ok. I like you. 300."
"Thats insulting. I have 2 children. How can I sell it that cheap. Ok 250."
"Forget it. No way."
I start to walk away. I get about 10 meters.
"Hey. Come here. Ok take it." He utters with a contemptuous dismissive wave of the hand, as if I have just stolen something precious from him.
He probably bought it for 30. The best marks are the ones who don't even realise they've been taken. I actually walk away feeling like I ruined his day, and got one over on him. What a pro!
Walking down the sidewalks, you have to control yourself. If you let your eyes wander over to someone's merchandise, they will be all over you. "Yes sir. How about a beautifully hand carved stone statue".
"No thanks. I was just admiring it. It IS very lovely."
"Why don't you buy it right now. I'll give you a rock bottom price." (no pun intended I'm guessing)
"I'm a backpacker, how could I carry it. It must weigh 100 kilos."
"We could ship it."
"That would cost a fortune.
"Sir You could sell this statue for 3 times what I'm asking for it in a minute."
Don't even try to argue with these guys.
"I have terminal cancer. I will be dead in 3 weeks."
"Sir this statue would look great at the head of your grave. Just come in the store and read the testimonials from other satisfied customers, both living and dead."
Then there is that famous tried and well tested ,"it's the first sale of the day" ploy
"Sir, I'll give you a special price because it's the first sale of the day."
"First sale of the day? It's 4 pm."
"Well it's been a slow day."
Of course, the most valuable information, which is a closely guarded secret, is the real price, the Nepali price. Finding that price takes a lot of work. One method is to ask a non- interested party. Even then, a stranger may be reluctant to tell you. He knows by doing so he will be hurting some businessman down the road. I wanted to get a haircut, so I went into a restaurant and ordered a tea. After engaging the proprietor in conversation for a few minutes, I asked him, "by the way, how much does a haircut cost here in Nepal?" He looked at me askance, as if I had asked him something very personal like whether his sister was a virgin or not. He hemmed and hawed, then finally retorted, "you can pay between 100-150 rupees. " "But what do you pay?" I pressed. Another pause. "Somewhat less than that." later I found the price was 50-60 rupees. This method can be very effective but it takes diligence. Anytime you want to go anywhere or buy anything, you must remember to ask the last Nepali person you see the price. You want to go to Darbar Square (where the famous historical monuments are located) to buy some hand made hats (they sell everything there.) " by the way, how much is the bicycle ricksaw to the square, and how much is a hat?" if you forget to ask, you are in no man's land.
Another way to find the real price is to watch closely. That's how I found out the price of popcorn and peanuts on the street was 10 rupees (I had been paying 20). I came up as someone was paying, and strained my eyes to see that he paid with a 20 rupee note (red) and received a 10 rupee not (brown) as change. I just handed him a 10 rupee note and he gave me my delicious popcorn without comment. Maybe he though I was Nepali, something some people told me. After you know the real price, it's easy. You just order and give the exact change. If the provider protests you either walk away (with your money) or say, "that's the price everywhere else in Kathmandu". The owner shrugs and smiles and gives you your popcorn (which is delicious and a nice thing about Nepal).
The third and most difficult way to find the real price involves some work. It involves the concept of "the walk-away-price. Here's how it works. You see something you like and you offer an impossibly low price. Say you want a ringing bowl, a popular item in Nepal which produces a long clear ring. It is often used to end a meditation session for meditating monks. I figure the bowl is worth 500. When the merchant says 1500, I say 300. He comes down to 1000, I come up a bit to 350. He counteroffers but I shake my head and start to walk away, slowly. Finally he shouts out, "ok 600, you're killing me." but I keep walking and listening very carefully. I hear no lower offers. 600 is his walk-away price. Next time I know I can get 600 and maybe even lower depending on the merchant. It's important the first time to know that you have no intention of buying, only getting information.
Once you know the real price, negotiating is so easy. I wanted to buy some light cotton Nepali pantaloons which is what young women in the villages wear. I knew the real price was 250. The conversation resembled a dance.
"OK." the vendor smiles. She knows I know, and we are both happy. It's like a soapy key fitting into a lock
This is not for the weak of heart. It's a cruel world, and if you want to get the respect of the merchants, you have to be tough. Sometimes a merchant will see something you bought and ask you what you paid. Of course it's up to you, how you reply, that is also privileged information. A friend and whole seller told me the price he paid for Tibetian prayer flags(also popular in Nepali temples) . I bought them for slightly higher than that (not in quantity). I was shopping for a knock off down-filled jacket. The merchant saw my prayer flags. "what did you pay for the flags?" he inquired curiously. I decided to be honest. "140 rupees". He nodded respectfully. "that's a very good price." his highest compliment.
Shopping in a third world bargaining country is a skill, an art, a test of your man (or woman) hood. In the end, it should be fun, with all the theatrics beforehand being set aside when the final sale or not is made. After all it's just a game for me. The merchant will never sell below cost, he will always make something. And for the merchant, if he only makes a small profit, there's always next time.