$14.95The Fearless Shopper How to Get the Best Deals on the Planet

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By Kathy Borrus
October 1999
ISBN 1-885211-39-2 278 pages
The Fearless Shopper

As a buyer for the Smithsonian, Kathy Borrus roamed the world looking for treasures and striking great bargains. Now for the first time, she shares her shopping secrets. You’ll learn how to haggle in an open-air market even if you don’t speak the language; how to spot scams and avoid rip-offs; when to buy and when to walk away. This savvy book will show you the best ways to shop, whether you’re in your hometown or traveling the world. Chock full of tips and wisdom for everyone.
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Chapter One
Detours & Diversions

Chapter Two
Fearless Preparations
–Dress the Part

Chapter Three
Safe Shopping

Chapter Four
Finding the Perfect Gift
–Gift Shopping in Catalogs

Chapter Five
Scoring a Find

Chapter Six
Secondhand Values

Chapter Seven
Consuming Less
–New Uses for Old Things

Chapter Eight
On-Line Shopping
–On-Line Auctions

Chapter Nine
Bazaars, Souks, and Third World Markets

Chapter Ten
Fearless Bargaining
–Bargaining 101
–Advanced Bargaining

Chapter Eleven
Fair Trade
–Questions for Researching Companies and Products

Chapter Twelve
Getting it Home –Taking It with You –Shipping –The Value-Added Tax (VAT)

Part Two

Fearless Shopper’s Regional Shopping Guide

Western Europe & Eastern Europe
Russia & Central Asia
South & Central America
North America

Size Comparison Chart
Resources & References

Chapter Ten

Fearless Bargaining

Necessity never made a good bargain. –Benjamin Franklin

I wandered into a jewelry store in Hong Kong, peered into the narrow counter, and asked to see a Seiko watch. I knew the suggested retail price in the States was about 200 dollars. I didn’t really want to spend more than $100, so when the merchant said $150, I was tempted. I tried it on, admired it, and handed it back.

“Too much,” I said. “I only wanted to spend $100.”

“You from America?” he asked. He wanted to know where, and what had brought me to Hong Kong. He chatted about everyday things and tried to interest me in other watches.

“I really only like that one, but it’s too much.” I shrugged, thanked him, and walked out the door. Perhaps I even looked disappointed.

He chased me down the street. A smile broadened his already wide face. “You my first customer of the day. First customer, last customer rule. Unlucky if I don’t make a sale. I sell it for $100.”

First customer, last customer–I didn’t even know I was bargaining. I bought it and realized that I got what I wanted because I was ready to walk away.

Another time, after dinner in Bali, the grounds of my hotel transformed into a temporary market with blankets lining the paths and traders hawking their handicrafts. I spotted batik cloth paintings and stopped to admire them. I chose two and asked the price of one.

A slender young man with a broken tooth started to sell the merits of both. “Fifty dollars each,” he said.

I must have looked like a rich tourist to him. They weren’t worth more than twenty-five to me.

“Too much.” I countered with an offer of twenty-five.

“Thirty,” he said.

“Too much.” I shrugged and walked away.

As I wandered away looking at other things and thinking about sleep, I felt a tap on my shoulder. He had followed me, the two batiks in his hands.

“You are my last customer of the day,” he said. “I sell both for twenty-five dollars total.”

First customer, last customer–sometimes you get more than you bargained for. Two for the price of one–how could I resist?

“I’ll take them,” I said, even though I knew the frames I’d put them in at home would cost far more.

He’s a businessman. I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.
–Mario Puzo, The Godfather

My dumb luck worked on these occasions, but often negotiating is more complicated. It’s a skill and one that the merchants have long perfected. But whether you are buying one souvenir or multiple items, it’s also fun. For the Smithsonian, we often dickered for hundreds. Because of our volume buying, we had an occasional behind-the-storefront tour to select more goods. The quantity of our purchases gave us leeway to haggle with the merchants. Whatever the answer to our questions “Cuanto cuesta?” or “Cambien?” we inevitably said, “Too much.”

After negotiations, depending on the country, we carted away any variety of goods–wood carvings, jewelry, textiles, one-of-a-kind crafts (all to be boxed and mailed later). Of course, we always thought that we got great bargains, but the truth is that merchants and shopkeepers have been at this game far longer. They know just where their margins are and what they can afford. I’m always reminded of the film Casablanca, where the merchant professes to give Ilsa a good price. He quickly drops his price, however, for “special friends of Rick’s,” leading one to ponder the intricacies of market negotiation and whom you know. We always tried to negotiate for the best deal even when prices were already good. It was part of the game.

So enjoy it, but remember merchants are savvy bargainers in any language–even the young children. And they’re quick to size up tourists. Once in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, I watched a young boy, no more than ten, try to interest a tourist in buying souvenirs. He addressed different customers, switching within seconds from Arabic to Hebrew, English, German, French, Spanish, and rattled off his prices. Merchants may not converse fluently in another language, but numbers are universal.


Haggling does not mean harassing. Being pushy and rigid will not win you any points with merchants in any part of the world. It is sad but true that foreign customers often harass shop owners, belittling their merchandise or being just plain rude. “This behavior does absolutely nothing for cultural understanding and global goodwill,” writes fearless bargainer Katie Cooney, author of Window on the World: Straightforward Advice for Today’s Woman Traveler. “Be casual and polite when asking for prices and information,” she advises. “The more polite and respectful you behave, the chances are the same respect and kindness will be reciprocated.”Don’t let negotiations get in the way of purchasing.
–Jim Greene, consultant and fly fisherman

Once you and a vendor have agreed on a price, it is impolite to back out. You’ve taken the merchant’s time, and reneging now is considered rude. Wait to bargain until you are ready to buy, and everyone stays happier. If you feel pressured, you can always step outside the shop to think the deal over.

In many countries, some items can be bargained for, and others are fixed. In whatever country you are visiting, know which items are negotiable and which are not. Such things as train and plane tickets, museum entrance fees, and safari tickets are usually considered set prices. But taxis–ifthey are independently owned–crafts, artwork, jewelry, clothes, rugs, and textiles are all negotiable. If in doubt, watch other travelers or ask them what’s appropriate.

It pays to get the feel of a market before you start to bargain; check out the quality and pricing at other vendor stalls. Knowing the relative value of an item will help you decide how to counter a merchant’s offer.

Bargaining is a game around the world–a game of wit and skill and words. Bring your best poker face, and prepare for some fearless entertainment.


  • Before you bargain for anything, decide “What is this worth to me?” Ask yourself, “What is the most I am willing to pay?” Then ask the price. That way you’ll know how much bargaining room you have.
  • See what the locals are buying and paying.
  • Try to avoid shopping during peak holiday or tourist seasons when demand often leaves little negotiating power.
  • Learn numbers in other languages.
  • If a merchant asks an absurd price, offer an equally ridiculously low price. You’ll probably meet somewhere in the middle. But if you start in the middle, you’ll have less room to maneuver and you’ll pay more than you should.

It never hurts to make an offer, even in a place you think would never discount. Always carry cash–it’s the international negotiator–and don’t be afraid to walk away.
–Lissa Spiller, real estate agent

  • Carry a calculator.
  • Always ask. All anyone can ever do is say no. Often I’ve asked for a discount for buying so much. Sometimes the clerk will laugh. And I always respond, “You’re laughing, and I’m serious.” Sometimes that’s enough to get an extra ten percent off.
  • Be willing to walk away. In bargaining, as in life, you can get what you want if you’re not attached to it.
  • Time your purchases for that lucky first or last spot of the day.
  • Maintain a sense of humor.

Buy what you like at a price you think is fair.
–Jonathan Kaufelt, lawyer


Many people think of bargaining as something to try in Honduras or Hong Kong, never in Western countries. But even in the U.S., negotiating can work, including in stores that have “fixed” prices. This is especially true if you are spending a considerable amount.My husband and I spent two days schmoozing with an old merchant and negotiating for jewelry in the New York City diamond district. In the end my husband had the diamond merchant in tears with old family stories–and he got the best price. –Judith Katz Nath, public relations and marketing consultant

In a pleasant manner, always ask for a discount. If you are friendly and polite, you’d be surprised how many stores, even upscale boutiques, department stores, and chains, will extend one. Salespeople often have leeway for small price breaks–ten percent–to handle on-the-spot markdowns, but if a clerk cannot make a large purchase discount decision, ask to speak to a manager or the owner. Rather than lose the sale, a merchant will often extend a courtesy discount or mention a “special” for the month.

In Europe, bargaining is more common than you’d expect and fairly routine in small owner-operated stores, open-air markets, art galleries, and antique shops. In countries such as Portugal and Spain, and in Greece, Turkey, and various islands, paying the asking price is only for the uninitiated. Bargaining is accepted and, indeed, expected.

And then there’s the matter of the “American price.” In many parts of the world, prices of souvenirs are set higher for American tourists, since all Americans are considered wealthy. If you are American, and a vendor asks where you’re from, he or she may not just be making small talk. If you are aware of this practice, you can bargain accordingly.

There have been times when I have been asked where I was from when the bargaining began, England? Germany? France? America? Canada? I wondered, What was the price if I was to say Germany or Canada? I would ask in a humorous way, “What country will get me the best price?” Their reaction was a combination of perplexity and embarrassment. We both ended up laughing at the situation.
–Katie Cooney, Window on the World


  • Always bargain up from your price, never down from the merchant’s.
  • Learn to be an actor. If something in a market is too expensive, act horrified. Do not be enthusiastic for or show much interest in the item you really want. Pretend you don’t care.
  • Try bargaining first for something else that doesn’t interest you as much. Wander around, then start negotiating for what you really want.
  • Let the vendor make the first offer, take your time before suggesting a counteroffer, or try silence. The offer may drop even before you respond.
  • Do not budge from your highest price. But if you really want it, ask the merchant for his or her best price.

You would be surprised how little vendors will accept if they are hungry to make a sale. –Vera Hyatt, exhibit curator

  • In small luxury shops, polite bargaining works best. Instead of aggressive tactics, ask any of these gentler questions:
    “Is there a cash discount?”
    “When will this item be on sale?”
    “Do you give professional discounts?”
    “Do you give discounts for traveler’s checks?”

With just a few hours left in New Delhi, I broke one of my cardinal rules: never buy ANYTHING at a hotel boutique. I saw a finely embroidered jacket in the shop window, just my size and in flattering colors. It was $400, the product of Kashmiri men who ply their needles during long, snowy winters. I offered $100 in cash dollars for it, was turned down, and left the store. I was walking away when the shopkeeper changed his mind and chased me down to accept my offer. Better a low sale than no sale that day for him. What did I learn? No place is above bargaining.
–Ann McClellan, marketing director

  • Do not be intimidated with aggressive bargaining, especially in many Third World countries. Counter bold tactics with equal vigor. Remember, you can always walk away.
  • When you are shopping abroad anywhere, ask, “Do you have a discount for foreigners?”

In Dallas, I saw a sofa that I wanted, but it was marked $600. I thought it was too much, so I asked the guy about it, and he punched in $150 into his calculator. I said, “You paid $150 for that? I’ll give you $200.” And I went home with the $600 couch for $200.
–Sarah B. Osborn, documentary filmmaker

  • If an item might go on sale soon, ask a clerk to hold it for you or ask if you can get the sale price immediately.
  • Ask for a discount at any store or market in the following circumstances:
    –for the last item on the shelf –for buying an older model –for a slight flaw that really doesn’t bother you (but pretend that it does) –for paying in cash, checks, or traveler’s checks –for various professions or memberships in certain organizations –for buying more than one of the same thing –for taking the floor or display sample off their hands. (Often you can get about twenty percent off, and many items still have a valid warranty.)
  • If you think you are paying too much but really want the merchandise, ask the merchant to throw another item into the bargain.

Give the lady what she wants!

  • Remind the merchant that you are helping them get rid of their inventory–especially at the end of a season. To a small business owner that translates into immediate cash flow to buy new goods or pay bills.
  • If something is too expensive, but you really want it, be indecisive. Pick it up, put it down, look at other things, ask lots of questions. Be persistent, but not demanding. The more a shopkeeper has invested in time and the longer you can string out the negotiations, the more likely you will arrive at a good compromise. The merchant will want to convert that time to money in order to get on to the next customer.

When negotiating, keep it fun and happy. Don’t get so fixated on getting a better price that it becomes an adversarial or unpleasant experience. –Alida Latham

  • Bring duty-free lists and catalogs from home as a way to compare prices and know if you are really getting a bargain. Tell the shopkeeper what price you’d pay for similar goods at home, if that will help with your negotiating.
  • The sight of real money is a powerful inducement for the vendor to close the sale. Pull out just what you are willing to part with.
  • In foreign countries, often pulling out dollars in a lesser amount will be acceptable. But in any currency, pull out less cash than asked for and try saying, “This is all I have on me. Will you take it?”
  • Enter into the bargaining only if you really want the item, and don’t leave behind something you really must have.

Many years ago, two brothers had a family clothing store on the Lower East Side of New York. The brother who waited on the customers wore a large hearing aid, while the other brother at the rear of the store was in charge of the books. After finding out a family wanted a blue suit for the son for the holidays, the brother in front would hold up the suit and shout to the brother at the rear, “Sam, how much is this blue suit?” From the back, the reply, “Thirty-five dollars.” The first brother promptly turned to the family and said, “The price of the suit is twenty-five dollars.” Quickly the suit was wrapped and paid for, and the family left very satisfied. It is remarkable how many fifteen-dollar suits were sold in this way.
–Marsha Shaines, lawyer

Kathy Borrus is a specialty retail marketing consultant and freelance writer. She traveled (and shopped) extensively as former merchandise manager and buyer for the Smithsonian Institution Museum Shops. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe and The Business of Crafts, a resource book. She lives in Washington, DC, with her son Josh.