When it comes to price, what you see isn’t always what you pay. In an effort to save money, more people are embracing the age-old practice of negotiation — and for more than just big-ticket items like cars and homes. Tough economic times have vendors and buyers more willing to discuss price.

However, haggling isn’t just a money-saving strategy — it’s a way of life in many countries. Whether you’re cruising the flea market in a local town or visiting a bustling market in a far-flung destination, here are some tips to help you get the best price.

Know before you go

Be prepared to do a little research if you want the best deals. If you can, try to find out:

- What to expect. How business is conducted and what is generally expected of buyers and sellers? What are the local customs? For instance, making a counter offer that’s half the asking price is the norm in some countries, but would be insulting to a flea market vendor here at home.

- What to look for. What does the store, market or area specialize in? Is there a certain craft or specialty item the area is famous for? What items are cheaper there than at home?

- How to spot quality. Beware that vendors often try to take advantage of tourists or other people who aren’t “in the know”. Can you spot shoddy goods from good quality, or a imitation versus the genuine article? The more you know, the better you can talk price.

In addition, if you’re shopping abroad make sure you’re familiar with the local currency and aim to learn some of the local language before your trip — especially vocabulary related to sales and numbers.

Where can you find this information? Try government travel advice and consult a good travel guide for a start.

Make sure it’s safe — and legal

Sure, it’s unique — but will it be more hassle than its worth? Even the garage sale down the street could be offering unsafe or illegal items. Different countries have different rules about what can be made and sold, and some items simply aren’t allowed into Canada and the U.S.

Before you get too attached, consider the following questions:

- Is it safe? Safety and quality standards aren’t universal, and some items could risk your health and well being. For instance, ceramics from other countries — such as mugs, plates and bowls — could be made with glazes that contain lead. When in doubt, buy for decorative purposes only. Many items that have hit the recall list can unknowingly show up for sale. (See How safe is second-hand stuff? for details.)

- Is it allowed? Many items like food, plants and animals can’t cross the border for good reason — they can introduce dangerous elements into our environment. Also, items that exploit the environment and endangered species may be illegal to transport, as are historical or cultural artefacts.

How can you tell if you’re headed for trouble? Check out travel advice from your country, like the Canadian Government’s Beware and Declare! and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s Prohibited and Restricted Items. When in doubt, check with your embassy first or talk to an official when you arrive at the airport. (If you take the initiative, it’s considered a “penalty-free confiscation” — meaning you won’t be penalized and the item can be properly disposed of.)

- Is it contaminated? Pests like bed bugs have become a major problem around the world, and it’s easy for a traveller or second-hand shopper to unknowingly bring them home. Be sure to carefully inspect goods, and ask the vendor if it has been checked. If you aren’t sure, don’t risk the hassle of ridding yourself of an infestation. (For more information, see Don’t let the bed bugs bite.)

Get the lay of the land

It can be difficult to gage the fair market value of an item until you’re in the area — that’s why it’s important to do some comparison shopping before you buy. Peruse the entire market, fair or shopping area to get a sense of selection and prices. It can’t hurt your negotiating skills to know that someone down the way has similar (but cheaper) offerings. You can even play one vendor against another.

A note of caution: here at home, it’s the norm for sales staff to greet customers as they enter the store. However, in markets around the world, greetings are often an indication to start the haggling process. If you’re not ready to talk price, there’s no need to exchange pleasantries.

Know your numbers

Once you have an idea of the value of an item, settle on a number or a range that you’re willing to pay before you start the bargaining process.

Don’t be shocked when you hear the first offer — it’s supposed to be high. In many countries, it’s not unusual for vendors to quote a price that’s two to three (or even thousands of) times what they’ll accept. Initial offerings may be further inflated for tourists, who many sellers perceive as wealthy and unaware of local customs and prices.

Depending on where you’re shopping, respond with a number that’s a lot lower than your limit. (Again, the gap will be much bigger in a foreign market than one close to home.) You’re not looking for immediate acceptance — haggling is a process, after all.

One mistake you’ll want to avoid is going too low. An unreasonably low price signals to vendors that you don’t know what the item is worth — a fact which they could exploit.

Don your poker face

A little deception is part of the negotiation dance. You won’t get a good price if it’s obvious that you’re eager to buy. It’s okay to be a little standoffish at first, or claim that an item is too expensive. Laugh, or feign astonishment — or even walk away if you have to. Let the vendor tempt you back.

Likewise, a seller may use similar tactics on you. Don’t be discouraged if a salesperson walks off or gives you the silent treatment — chances are that he or she will be back.

However, experts warn there’s one deception everyone should avoid: pretending you’re interested in an item you have no intention of buying. Haggling can be fun, but lost time means lost revenue for a vendor.

If you do change your mind part way through the process, just say, “no thank you” and leave. There’s no need to offer any explanations — they could be interpreted as a further bargaining tactic or attempt to mock the vendor.

Aim for the win-win situation

Your ultimate goal? Experts agree the middle ground is usually a good place to land. While you don’t want to be overcharged, you don’t want to exploit the seller either. After all, sellers need to earn a decent living and deserve fair treatment. Remember, with relative currency rates what seems like a small discount to a traveller could make a big difference to a vendor. In addition, your cash is supporting the local economy — especially in developing countries.

What should your final number look like? There are no set rules — it depends on the location, the item and the circumstances. Bear in mind that some experts warn when shopping abroad you shouldn’t end up paying more than half of the original asking price. In North America, the margins are much slimmer.

Think outside the market

Markets, boutiques and fairs aren’t the only place to haggle when you travel. You can also talk your way into discounts on hotel rooms, car rentals and other services — not to mention scoring some perks. You’re more likely to get some good deals if you travel off-peak or shoulder season, or head to a lesser-travelled area. (See 7 ways to save on your next trip and Make popular destinations less expensive.)

At home, put your negotiating skills to work on used items, damaged or opened goods, floor models or buying in bulk. Even if the answer is no, you won’t get any discounts if you don’t ask in the first place.

One final word of advice: keep it friendly. Be fair in your dealings, and don’t let the process get personal. With some know-how and a little creativity, you can land a good deal on some unique and useful items.

Sources: BBC News and WikiTravel

What’s your favourite haggling tactic, or your best success? Tell us in the comments.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/gautier075

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by:
Elizabeth Rogers