If you’ve looked at travel guides to Thailand, you may already have seen that haggling can be part of the shopping experience. While that may be true in some cases, there are also situations where trying to haggle is simply not done. And even when it is OK to haggle, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. So, how do you know where and when to haggle and what is the best approach?
Negotiate with a smile
When you shop at markets in Thailand it’s meant to be a sanuk (fun) experience for you and the vendor. One of the most important things to remember is to negotiate with a smile. This shouldn’t be about aggressively trying to get the absolute bottom line price. If you can’t agree a price, but it’s all done with a laugh or a smile nobody loses face. Vendors at markets still have overheads and need to make a living too. Being aggressive or confrontational is not the best way to do things in Thailand.
Knowing when to haggle
If you are shopping at a street market and the price isn’t marked up on the item you are interested in, then there will usually be some room for negotiation. Only ask the price if you are genuinely interested in buying. And before asking, have an amount in your head that you think is a fair price. But you still need to be sensible about this. If you are buying a hand-made item from a vendor, respect the skills and time it took to make it. At markets which are popular with Thai people, such as the Walking Street Market in Chiang Mai or Cicada Market in Hua Hin, the initial price quoted is likely to be more than fair. There may be room for a small discount, especially if you are buying more than one, and in these situations the seller may offer this automatically without you needing to ask.
At some markets aimed at tourists (e.g. Patpong in Bangkok) the initial price quoted for items like watches and bags may well be inflated. If the item is mass produced and clearly not top quality then the vendor is probably chancing their arm with the first price they quote. In situations like this a counter offer well below may be reasonable. But even then, the haggling should still be done with a smile. The stall-holder is likely to have the ubiquitous big calculator nearby ready to tap in his offers as part of the negotiating process. If you’ve got a price you’re happy with and the vendor is happy, that’s a successful haggle. Don’t beat yourself up if your friend comes back the next day and tells you they got an extra 100 Baht off for the same item.
When not to haggle
Department stores and large shops work on a fixed price and are not the place to start haggling. Fresh food markets and restaurants are also haggle-free zones. There may be some countries in Asia where everything is haggled for, but Thailand isn’t one of those places. If it says 40 Baht for a fruit smoothie, that’s the price. Enjoy what is already a bargain.
The advice here was written before the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis. The fall-out from that will have a long-lasting impact on all our lives and it’s a sad fact that many small Thai businesses may not be able to continue. And for those vendors and small shops that are still able to trade, it’s going to be a tough struggle ahead. Small traders in Thailand will be delighted when the tourists start to return, but please think carefully before deciding whether to haggle or not. It doesn’t mean that you have to accept any price, but now more than ever, please use your discretion before haggling and do it the right way.
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