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Luci Travels My first time traveling and I go halfway across the world-One newbie's experiences in urban India

The Art of the Sale

INDIA | Wednesday, 15 April 2015 | Views [291]

There is a dance in India that is done in shops every single day. It’s the perpetual dance between the seller and the buyer, otherwise known as the ever-frustrating barter.

India, I’m on to you. Being a white, American shopper in this country for a little over three months, I’ve done this dance enough to know the steps. Maybe not enough to do it gracefully, but knowing the steps will suffice.

Craft is incredibly important to the Indian economy. There are scarves from Kashmir (Cashmere), shoes and leather goods from Rajasthan, small gold elephants, Buddhas, Shivas, and Krishnas, traditionally hand-woven clothes, embroidered kurtas and saris, and blankets upon blankets on the streets with a symphony of multi-colored jewels laid on top. Storeowners are proud of their craft, which could be from the nearby villages, imported from other parts of the country, or done right in the city they’re selling in. Regardless, they know they have something unique to India. What they also know, and the wayward foreign traveler does not, is that these items cost almost nothing to make. That’s why there are two prices in India: the Indian price, and the foreigner price. One, I won’t tell you which yet, is much, much higher than the other.

The stores in India are like nothing I’ve ever seen. Small and compact, they cram every inch of the space with “rare Indian artifacts” which the shopkeeper claims, “you won’t be able to find such craft anywhere else, I guarantee.” Walking past them, being very obviously not Indian, I might as well have strapped a gigantic dollar sign above my head. They yell out,
“Madam, please, come see my store!”
“Fine leather goods, you like? (Holds up bag).”
“Where you going? Come in to my store.”
“Madam, please don’t go!”
“So fair you are, scarf?”
“You are looking lovely, come into my store.”
“Madam! Madam!”

It’s like walking past a verbal firing squad. I almost fell into a stress-induced coma the first time I experienced it, and the next few times it didn’t get much easier.

For a spring break trip, my host sister Misha, my roommate Krissy, my friend Eva and I all went up north and spent time in Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Agra, and Delhi. It’s known as the “Golden Triangle” that foreigners usually take when they come to India. They go to the states of Rajasthan, where Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur are to see the pink city, blue city, shop and see the temples and forts, then to Agra where they see a small unknown building called the Taj Mahal, then end their trip in Delhi where they can experience the quintessential hustle and bustle of a large Indian city.

We ended up doing most of our shopping in the beautiful Udaipur. We were all on the hunt for gifts to bring back home. Us foreigners had been in India for about two months at that point, and had been hustled by shopkeepers for all of those 60 days. We were hardened souls, not ready to take any poor treatment from the storeowners abusing our naïve western minds. We were done, d-o-n-e. Now we knew the dance.

The dance is as such: First, you find out from an Indian what the actual price of something should be. We would have Misha, who is from Bangalore and speaks Hindi, go into the shops before us and then tell us how much things were, or she would know by memory how much the item we wanted was. Then, armed with our knowledge, we would go into the store with our heads held a little bit higher. The trick when seeing something you want in a store is to not act taken with it. The worst thing you could do if you find something you like is to pick it up and hold on to it as you shop. Mistake, mistake, mistake. Then the shopkeeper knows you will buy it no matter what. You have to act completely indifferent towards it.

Second, you point at the item and say, “How much?” If it’s a kurta, which is a long shirt with slits on the side that is part of a typical Indian outfit, they will usually cost about 150-200 rupees, or about three US dollars. These kurtas will fall apart after you wash them a few times, so yes they are only worth three dollars. If you are not Indian like me, the storeowner will look at the kurta, look at you, look down and say, “1,000 rupees.”

Earlier, my western brain would do that math and say, “oh, 1,000 divided by 61 is about 16 dollars, pretty good price for a shirt!” I would pay the quoted price and be happy with my cool Indian shirt, until I went home. I would show it to Misha and she would ask me, like a dog owner would ask the dog what they did to the couch, “Luci…how much did you pay for that?” Already knowing that I probably overpaid by the tone of her voice, I would look down and quickly say, under my breath, “a…thousand.” She would either laugh or just look disappointed.

We had had that interaction enough where I knew I couldn’t let myself be fooled anymore. Frankly, I couldn’t afford it, ego-wise, and money-wise.

When the shopkeeper quotes you the ridiculous price of 1,000 rupees for a shirt that will fall apart tomorrow, you quote them back an equally ridiculous low price. “50 rupees,” you say. The shopkeeper will shake his head.
“No, no, no, no lower than 1,000. This is authentic, hand embroidered!”
“Okay,” you say, and walk out.
As soon as you turn your back, the shopkeeper will say, “Madam! Ok, ok, 800 rupees. Final offer.”
“No, 60 rupees.”
“Madam, I cannot go below 800. I cannot.”
“Fine.” You start to walk out again.
“Madam, please! Okay, 500, final offer.”
“No, 60.”
“60 too low, 450. Traditional design, very rare.”
“400. I cannot budge. No lower than 400, not possible.”
“No, 400.”
You walk out again.
“Madam! I am telling you, 250.”
Now everyone’s stressed out and angry, but you my friend have danced the dance and won the gold medal. The shopkeeper will grumble and groan and tell you he has no change for you if you ask for it. You pay and walk out and the shopkeeper will look at you like he’s mentally cursing you and the Indian that told you how much a kurta should cost.

This is the science. In Udaipur, we put it up to the test and ended up feeling pretty good about ourselves. Sometimes, storeowners will be blatant about the two prices. Misha and I were in a store looking at wrap skirts. She held one up and asked the storeowner how much it was. He told her 300. I held up a similar skirt and asked how much it was. He told me 400. Misha was angry, and started to yell at him in Hindi. We both walked out with nothing, although to be honest I probably would have bought the skirt anyways. Sometimes, pride makes room for vanity.

Being in a country where, just by looking at you, someone knows they can take advantage of your lack of knowledge is a blow to your self-esteem. But, it makes it all the more thrilling when you make it out alive. To live in any place big and unknown to you there’s an element of survival, and surviving Indian shopping tops my bucket list of things I did that I didn’t even know I wanted to do.

India has beautiful items for sale, but I’m ready to go back to my less stressful, fixed-price world, no matter how expensive it is. To all of the people I will give gifts to when I return, yes the gifts are pretty cheap, but the absolutely monumental effort and mental turmoil I went through to get them is worth its weight in gold.

Tags: barter, clothing, india, leather goods, money, rajasthan, rupees, shopkeeper, shopping, udaipur

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