The physics of haggling in Marrakesh

Haggling is hard to illustrate ... so check out these dromedaries.
Haggling is hard to illustrate … so check out these dromedaries.

I should be the gold-plated King of Haggling. It doesn’t come up much, since I’ve always lived in places where the prices aren’t negotiable, but all the ingredients are there. I’m cheap; I’m persistent and I’m happy to visit 10 stores to find the exact thing that I want at the price I deserve. Plus, I have a naturally grumpy expression that throws solicitous salespeople off their game*. You’d think the markets of Marrakesh — where just about everything is negotiable — would be my mountaintop.

Before this trip, I was as excited about haggling in Morocco as I’d been about anything since waffles in Belgium. I thought I would really enjoy getting to see what I was capable of. I turns out that, like most people, I’m not terribly good at predicting my own happiness.

Here’s the crucial detail: A Moroccan Dirham is worth about 12 U.S. pennies. Even accounting for that favorable exchange rates, everything is ridiculously cheap. Lunch is $2. Dinner might be $3, $4 if you’re feeling fancy. And this is with merchants charging you more because you’re a tourist. The locals get by on much, much less.

Slowly, you start to fixate on two facts:

  1. These people have nothing. Some of them are living in squalor on pennies a day.
  2. And they’re ripping you off.

And so you find yourself in truly insane situations where you’re refusing to pay the equivalent of $6 for a cab ride across town because you know that the driver will settle for $4, because he’d usually get $2.

These are not Morocco-specific problems. You face this kind of dilemma every day. You buy the e-book edition of a novel from Amazon, instead of spending $9 for a paperback at a chain bookstore or maybe $10 for the luxury of shopping at one of the few remaining independent bookstores. You’re allocating resources to best meet your needs, and those choices have consequences for all kinds of people you will never meet. That’s capitalism.

But when you’re the person setting the price — when you’re looking someone in the eyes and telling them what their time is worth to you, it changes the dynamic. Ego is rarely a factor when you’re buying something online or from a huge, anonymous chain. In Marrakesh, it is everything.

The problem is ever before you. It rattles around and around in your heart like a Zen koan: I don’t want to be sucker who pays too much; I don’t want to be an asshole who dickers for pennies.

I spent most of my first day there wrestling with this. On day number two, I caught a strange sort of lucky break: I found out that my hotel room wasn’t prepaid. It was right there in the overlooked fine print of my reservation e-mail — the bill had to be paid in cash, in local currency when I checked out. The bill was half of the cash I’d brought with me.

It wasn’t enough to ruin the trip, certainly, but it added a little urgency to my financial planning. I’d have to negotiate just a little bit if I was going to get through my itinerary, pickup the requisite souvenir, plus maybe a present for Blair** and still have enough money to get to airport.

That didn’t absolve me of the globalization guilt I was experiencing. But it made haggling feel less arbitrary and less mean-spirited. I was no longer negotiating out of principle, but out of a (totally self-inflicted) practical concern. And so I went to work.

The deep-down mechanics of haggling are far from exact. But I did notice a few trends:

  • The price you will pay for something is inversely proportional to how much you want it. You cannot fake this, not really. If you feign indifference, you’ll get a small discount, and you’ll take it and feel terribly clever. But if you flat out reject an item and start to move on, you’ll hear some pretty amazing offers shouted after you as you walk away. To get the best possible deal, you have to be willing to abandon the prize.
  • Haggling with people who don’t speak your language (by pointing and holding up numbers of fingers) is tons of fun, but unlikely to result in big savings. People change their terms when they become emotionally invested in the outcome. That’s hard to achieve without a common tongue.
  • The few women I haggled with seemed much less likely to cut their own throats making a deal. They were very dispassionate, very take-it-or-leave it.
  • Telling people I could only afford to pay so much was surprisingly effective. “I’ve only got 300 Dirham left and I’d like to give some of it to you, but…”
  • I never got used to the carnival-barker aspect of Moroccan markers. I spent two days with people constantly shouting at me in four languages.***  But I realized that I walked behind another group of tourists — or better yet, attractive women — they’d soak up most of the attention, leaving me freee to scope out a market stall.
  • But by the end of my trip, I realized that all that shouting served a useful purpose. You could pick out the best stalls at a distance by focusing on the traders who were totally silent. Just like anywhere else in the world, advertising is the cost of having an inferior product.

* I take a lot of pleasure in making perky people unhappy. I like to think that whenever I make someone lose their million-watt grin, I’m balancing out the universe.
** Blair was home sick. Which was unfortunate because I really could have used her translating skills to help me find my way around in a city where most of the street signs are in Arabic.
*** Most people tried to talk to me in Spanish first. That’s probably got nothing to do with me and everything to do with the fact that they get more Spanish tourists than Americans. But it was nice, just this once, to not have everyone immediately peg me as a big, oafish American right away. I’m certain it will never happen again.

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