Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I've posted a lot about the roads, because they're one of the first things a Westerner notices in India. (India's driving surpasses China's -- the Chinese stop at red lights.) Before I can really describe some of the other things that happened to us, I need to describe India's pricing system and haggling.

Basically in India, every price is negotiated - imagine that everything is priced like cars in the US. Some goods have an MSRP, which would be the price you should never pay because it's way too high, but most goods are entirely unlabeled (the store has no indication of potential price). The only things that we did not haggle for were restaurant bills and plane tickets. (We even ended up in an argument about what to pay for a metered cab, but that's another story.)

To further complicate things, the merchant can make a pretty good guess about how much money you might based on how you look. Being white, Lori and I scream money to an Indian merchant - whether we're from the US or Western Europe makes no real difference. But our friends in India (who are Indian, but look like they are upper class, with white collar jobs) have the same issue: they go into the negotiation with a handicap. The implications of what it means to have money in India (whether you live there or as a tourist) are complicated enough that I'll devote a separate blog post to them.

Our friend Tanmay has a good rule of thumb: whatever price they offer you, counter with about 1/4 of what they are asking. We had trouble pushing that low, but we were usually able to ask for about 1/3. What we actually paid varied by the situation, was virtually always too high compared to local prices, but was usually a good deal compared to US prices.

A lot of the time I enjoyed haggling, but I think this is because I could haggle while it was novel, then go home to the US and price shop online...having to haggle every day would wear me out, and there were definitely times when we thought "oy, we have to haggle now."

There are some cases of fixed price shopping, but they are invariably expensive by local standards. In some cases it's worth saving the hassle. For example, at a lot of tourist sites, people will offer to be a guide. How much do you pay for this? With strong negotiation you might get a very good price. At some sites the guide rate is posted -- the rate is invariably higher than you would pay if you were a local who could haggle, but it is usually lower than you would pay if you are a foreign tourist who isn't used to pushing on prices all the time.

(For example, the guide rate at many Rajasthani monuments is 100 rp, which is about $2. Guides making $2 for a 30-60 minute tour are doing very well for themselves by Indian standards, but if you're an American you're going to have a lot of trouble getting much below 100 rp, and even if you did, is it worth having an extended haggling session before each monument to save 50 cents?)

I realized a few things about shopping while in India:
  • I really don't know what most things should cost...I am used to getting my pricing information from the context of the store dong the selling.
  • To shop for negotiated items, you really need to be an expert at what you're buying...there are only a few items that I could really haggle for if I wanted to. Our friend Pooja told us that if you want to make a large purchase in India, you need to rely on a web of trust - that is, friends who know more about the material, and merchants with whom you have some relationship.
My favorite haggling moment was when I managed to get under the skin of the manager of a tourist gift shop at a hotel part-way to Jaipur.  Our driver was having lunch and Lori was browsing the gift shop, trying to haggle down the price of a small purse.  I got into an extended discussion about pricing of flash memory for cameras with the manager, and then sprung my proposal: to trade a card that I had (incorrect for my camera) for another, less valuable card. He would owe me about 300-400 rp, but I was willing to make the trade for only 100.

The manager had no desire to take my second-hand flash card (even though it was in plastic), but I kept working on him, pointing out what a great deal it was, until finally I got under his skin enough that he yelled "No Buying!  Only Selling!"  Having been driven nuts by people trying to sell us tourist crap we didn't want for the previous four days, it was a small victory.

Eventually my rantings about the economy and state of finance and my India posts will end up merging, but that can wait a few more days. There's still a lot more to write about! (I did get the camera off-loaded today, so I will try to post some pics soon...we took 764 pics and movies...)

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