I spent 13 years studying the fine art of haggling: Here is what I learned
- What is haggling, why do people do it, and what are the best tricks?
- Collin Abroadcast, who posts his shopping exploits on YouTube, calls it "really rapid negotiation. Where you think on your feet."
- "I wanna talk with them... I wanna have a certain vibe," travel blogger Sassy Funke says of bargain shopping in her native Nigeria.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
Funke Ogunkoya-Futi - aka Sassy Funke, travel blogger, vlogger, and the author of the Lagos Travel Guide - was ambling through the alleys of Nigeria's Lekki Arts and Crafts Market early one morning last July, just before the rush of shoppers. Her goal: attain ready-made African clothing for her Canadian in-laws.
She browsed the closet-sized shops spilling out with jewelry and gems, furniture, and tribal masks, woven baskets and wax print bags. Paintings stacked on paintings stacked on paintings. As she peeked into stores, shopkeepers called out, "Come, mama. I have it. I have what you're looking for."
She was comparing prices at multiple shops when she spotted a dress she loved. The shopkeeper asked for 2000 naira (about R7.23). Normally, no matter the price asked, Ogunkoya-Futi shoots shopkeepers a look of utter shock and then offers to pay something "ridiculous," she told me. If something is 100 naira (R3.61), she offers 5 (19 cents).
But the dress was good quality; 2,000 naira (about R72) was already a great price. She offered 1,000 naira (about R36).
Ogunkoya-Futi performed masterful schmoozing, talking the seller up and calling herself his daughter. She offered to make multiple purchases and refer him to her friends. Twenty minutes of back and forth later, she secured the deal.
Then, Ogunkoya-Futi asked him to throw in three headbands.
"This'll cost you nothing to make," Ogunkoya-Futi said, holding the headbands aloft.
He gave them to her for free.
Ogunkoya-Futi beams when sharing the story with me during an interview over Zoom, claiming it was her best haggling experience because she and the shopkeeper sparked a connection, both had a pleasant experience, and she brought three friends back that week to support his shop. Ogunkoya-Futi had scored a great deal - and helped a kind businessman.
"I love the interaction," she told me. "I wanna talk with them. I wanna gist with them. I wanna have a certain vibe, and they enjoy that, they get that."
There's also the rush of adrenaline. Collin Abroadcast, a YouTuber who gets millions of views when he posts his shopping exploits, defines haggling as "really rapid negotiation. Where you think on your feet. It's a game, and the more you play, the more you gain speed and learn to read people's body language."
A good deal between friends
I also love a good haggle. I haggled for my wife's engagement ring, and before our wedding, I haggled for catering, a DJ, and a photographer. Soon after, I haggled for our house, and when we started our family, I haggled for a minivan.
I honed my skills during my time living in Jerusalem for nine months in the mid-aughts when I was 27. I was interning at a Jewish-Arab equality NGO and making little money.
In Israel, haggling is hardcore. Sellers go from telling you that you look like a celebrity to cursing you out. I perfected the interest-indifference ratio, always walking out of a store with a salesperson trailing me, hollering deals. I would get into cabs, then immediately back out, if they didn't knock the price down.
My grandfather was a haggler. He escaped the antisemitism and pogroms of Poland for America in 1917 and desperately drove his roots into upstate New York's soil, peddling scrap metal, haggling over prices, and eventually saving enough to start a tailored suit shop/dry cleaners, which soon became a suit shop/paint store, and finally Deitcher's Wallpaper and Design Center in Cohoes, New York, established in 1926.
Born in 1937, my father was heir to the business. Over lunches at Smith's Tavern, he haggled deals with distributors, loading up on stock in exchange for a bigger discount. In return, customers asked for discounts, too, and if they purchased enough, of course he hooked them up.
When my father grew up it was easier for independent businesses to thrive. Store owners were from the community. Customers trusted them because they were neighbours and family. Clerks could make deals, usually cutting into their commission. Shop owners haggled with other shop owners who then haggled deals back. Supporting each other was supporting friends.
Today, the only things you can haggle for in the United States are cars, houses, fine jewelry, large appliances, home repairs, event services, and graphic novels at Comic Con. There's little hope for small businesses cutting deals with distributors when Walmart goes directly to manufacturers to demand the lowest wholesale rates.
In the 80s, Deitcher's Wallpaper grew to the point that my father couldn't order wallpaper fast enough, so he bought a warehouse. In the 90s, he moved the family into his custom-built dream house: 5,600 square feet (1,707 metres) in Slingerlands, New York-the country-where we were one of a handful of Jewish families in the school district and barely knew our neighbours. Then the business faltered. For years, my father tried running new promotions, but the store bled money and most of his income was from investments. In the early aughts, he held a final sale, donated his stock to Habitat for Humanity, and became an appointment-only interior decorator.
Even my father shops on Amazon now.
"Never, never, take it personally. Never get angry."
But while America becomes less able to negotiate, people watch the art of haggling. Abroadcast, the haggling YouTuber, has 1.42 million followers on the platform. His comments sections are filled with fans peeping into a world they will never experience.
Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Abroadcast started his channel making "typical travel Vlog type stuff," he told me via Zoom. "Here I am as a foreigner living in China." He had never haggled in his life before he visited the fake markets in Shanghai five years ago. He envisioned back-alley hustlers, but found a five-story mall in the middle of the city. He caught on immediately, bargaining over a pair of Nikes he knew were bootleg. He felt the rush of adrenaline. The connection with sellers.
His schtick became hopping from country to country-India, Morocco, Kenya, 20 countries overall-rocking two days of stubble, a T-shirt or a hoodie, and a backpack. His videos run 20 minutes to over an hour, with scene after scene of him haggling and chatting with sellers. Sometimes the haggles get tense, frustration sparking between both the seller and Abroadcast. To some viewers, I'm sure he can come off as a white American trying to acquire goods for peanuts, but often you see him taking his time to learn about a seller's art and family. He can be genuine, both calling out fake goods and complimenting what he likes.
"I know straight off the bat, especially me being a foreigner in these markets, they expect me to have money because I'm on vacation," he said. "So obviously, they're going to take their chance and try to overcharge me."
His favourite story, he told me, took place in Beijing's Silk Market, a massive modern mall known as a destination for buying knock-offs.
In a shop lined with shoes, a seller rejected his offer of 200 yuan (about R475) for a pair of Jordans. He told her, "I'm good, I'm good," and headed for the exit. The seller reeled him back in, reminding him he was being unreasonable because she was selling him Jordans, "not lady shoes, not baby shoes, not socks." She fed him tons of snark, which he met with laughter. She finally lowered her price to 250 because he was "very handsome," but he left empty handed, holding firm at his offer of 200.
"My best haggling situation isn't where I get the best price, it's where I have the most fun. And the seller has the most fun as well," he said. "Those are always the best times because it's like, 'Alright, let's put my skills to the test.' The worst ones are when the sellers don't really care to sell to you."
"Never, never, take it personally. Never get angry," Abroadcast said. "As humans, we all want the same thing. Everybody just wants to have good health. They want to be loved and be able to support their family at the end of the day."
"Just pay the dollar and go"
My mom-in-law, who grew up in Jamaica in the '60s, didn't feel a connection with the buyers she haggled with. She did it because that's how her family got by.
Once a week, she, her mom, and her sisters went shopping in the bend-down markets of Saint Elizabeth, a parish in the south of Jamaica, known for having the reddest dirt and the Appleton rum estate. Sellers spread their goods on blankets, and often, my mom-in-law and her family came with their own crop to sell - thyme, scallions, and coffee beans from their farm - while their mom used profits to haggle for soup meat, liver, and kidney.
Many of my mom-in-law's family members loved chatting with buyers, but she hated it. "It kind of made me feel a little…" her voice trailed off while she told me about it from across the kitchen table. She remembered feeling ashamed as she watched school friends wandering by, purchasing things, while she fought over small sums of money. "You know how children are. They would say, 'hey, I saw her in the market selling.' It was down-grading."
Once her secondary school finished, she left the farm and eventually made her way to America, where she attained her dream job at New York City's Waldorf Astoria, a stark contrast to the markets. To this day, she is one of the worst hagglers I've seen. "She gets embarrassed. Has too much pride," my wife told me. "She worries haggling makes her seem less-than."
"I can't do it," my mom-in-law said, stirring her tea. "If they say this thing is for a dollar, I just pay the dollar and go. It's up to them and their conscience. I don't lose."
She loves chatting with the sales people, whether it be in Macy's or a market in Ocho Rios. She will even leave sellers tips. "I remember my days when I didn't have it," she said. "I know how it's hard."
"You don't leave money on the table."
Last February, my wife and I took my mom-in-law and my son to visit Jerusalem, and we strolled through the shuk, my mom-in-law paying what she pleased while I went to work.
I was in my element.
Roni Peled, senior tour guide and Director of Guide Activities at the Israel Museum, told me that since the Crusades, the streets of Jerusalem's Old City have been named for different goods and services. "If I open a shop of spices, right away, on my right side and my left side, there would be open another shop of spices," he said. The Ottoman Empire divided the wide, slippery limestone streets into alleys, a half or quarter their original size, creating the maze of vibrant markets of today. Growing up refugees in the 50s, Peled's family couldn't afford plays and movies, so going to the markets was how they entertained themselves. Everyone met in the markets.
Arabs shopped from Jewish shops and Jews frequented Arab shops, but Peled worries the bonds created in Jerusalem's markets are becoming a thing of the past. In 2008, right before I left Jerusalem, the Mamilla Mall opened, just outside the Old City, leading to Jaffa Gate. It's a massive open-air shopping centre featuring haggle-free high-end international chain stores built around and into historical buildings. I enjoy shopping there the same way I love my local mall, but the experience feels very impersonal.
Haggling is changing in Nigeria, too, at least for more financially comfortable Nigerians in cities like Lagos.
Back when Ogunkoya-Futi was growing up in the 90s, going to a proper grocery store was a trip, but it's becoming more the norm. "They're becoming formal entities," she told me, "with a PNL, with projections." Nigerians can get most anything delivered through Jumia, known as the Amazon of Africa. There are hundreds of dispatch services-delivering food, clothing, and TVs.
She sees merchants struggling and understands why many Nigerian businesses are becoming more formal. "I can take a random vendor in the market that people haggle with on a day-to-day basis. He sells his products one day for 15. The next day, 100. The fundamental issue is that he can't plan. The fundamental issue is that he has constant bills that are fixed or even growing that he might not be able to live up to." Yet because other vendors are haggling, he can't afford to stop.
"I love the haggling culture," Ogunkoya-Futi said. "But I think it's unpredictability of revenue is a big issue in the market." It's one of the reasons, she told me, many Nigerians are dependent on diaspora money to survive.
Stelios Michalopoulos, an economics professor at Brown University, tells me that societies where haggling is a big part of commercial interactions often share a way of valuing time. "If time is expensive, then you would not do it," he said. "When labour cost is low, then your time is cheap."
It's also more common where a higher value is placed on social interactions, there is a joy in haggling. "Both the buyer and the seller want the other to be happy," so they can "invite for further interactions," Michalopoulos said. Of course, that makes less sense when it comes to tourists, who are unlikely to return consistently.
He told me that he believes haggling and formalised trade systems can work together. He used donation-based alumni organisations as a parallel example. Donors set the value of being involved with organisations-giving $50 (about R743) or $100 (R1,486) or whatever they want based on their interest-and the organisations run fine.
He called haggling "the optimal way to sell" because the buyer pays "according to his marginal willingness to pay, which will be higher than the cost to the supplier." The possibility for price differentiation leaves no unexploited opportunities for trade.
"If you have one single price economy," he said, and something costs the seller $8 (R119) and the market price goes for $10 (about 149), "there are actually trades that could have taken place at eight-and-a-half bucks, nine bucks, nine-and-a-half bucks."
"The single price law kills those possibilities," he said.
If a buyer is willing to pay anything above the seller's cost, "You don't lose. You don't leave money on the table."
Today, Ogunkoya-Futi travels the world, documenting her journey to over 35 countries, but she often finds herself haggling with favourite food sellers back home over 10 naira (R0.36).
And she says bringing the haggling mentality into other aspects of your life "can open doors that you don't even know." It's about ingenuity. "Don't be discouraged by the hard print," she said. If a job says you need to apply by the first of the month but it's the second, "find the right person in that company. They'll put your application through." If a job can't meet your salary demands, ask if they can bundle it with other benefits, stock options, or travel credits. "Don't be so fixed on one point, look for other creative ways to make a deal better for you."
"If you're personable," Ogunkoya-Futi said, "you just never know."
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