Haggling (And Surviving) in Morocco

Mount Atlas, Morocco

Last week, Erin and I went to Morocco (Marrakech, mostly) with a couple of friends from college. It was my first time on the continent of Africa, so I was excited and ready to be amazed. Erin wrote more generally about our many experiences in Morocco, but here, I want to write about one of the country’s more well-known pastimes – haggling.

Haggling over the price of an item is especially common in the Souks, or markets that make up the city center. These are places frequented by tourists, and the shop-owners are more than willing to use their expertise to take advantage of unwitting souvenir-hunters. And experts they are.

Fortunately, you can avoid their sneaky tactics with a bit of prior knowledge, nerves of steel, and a sense of humor. Here are a few of the lessons we learned about haggling, and how we learned them.

Lesson 1: Negotiate the price of a service beforehand

Indoor Souk

When your accommodations in Marrakech are located in the Medina, arriving is intimidating. The Medina is a complex web of unnamed alleyways, unmarked buildings, and vanishing sidewalks (probably). When you look like a tourist, someone asks you if you need help getting somewhere as soon as you arrive. The truth is, you do need the help. You definitely do.

We graciously accepted the first offer to be led to our hostel, and did expect to pay for it, having read ahead of time about such people. What we did wrong though, was follow the guy without naming a price first. After the less-than-two minute walk to our hostel (it would have taken us two months to find it on our own, without a doubt), I gave the guy 3 Dirhams (Moroccan currency), keeping two more in my pocket for negotiating power. His response was swift, and with unexpected intensity.

“THIS IS NOTHING, THIS IS SH*T!” he yelled at all of us, demanding more money. Having been prepared for some pleading, but not for being yelled at, I told him if he thought it was nothing, he could give it back. Surprisingly, he didn’t love that option, either.

After nearly 5 minutes of “tense discussion”, in which the 3 Dirhams changed hands at least four times (he kept giving it back in protest, then taking it back when he knew he was probably not getting more), the hostel owner finally arrived at the door to let us in. And that was when the helpful navigator threw his (my?) Dirhams at me and stormed off.

Lesson 2: When haggling, bid first

Outdoor Souk

This may seem counter-intuitive; isn’t letting the other side make the first offer the #1 rule of negotiations? I say, not in Morocco, where peddlers know they can sucker someone into grossly overpaying for something. When you let the seller offer the first price he will say something so ridiculously high, you’ll never get the price down to a reasonable level. But when you go first, you can set the tone.

Example: we considered buying an old-looking sign (it said WC in English and Arabic, and would have looked cool on the bathroom door of our apartment). Unfortunately, we let the shop-owner name the price first: 300 Dirhams. For a mass-produced sign! In Morocco, 300 Dirhams can buy you ten meals at a mid-range restaurant. It can buy you 75 glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice. It can even buy you 96 super cool photos with a real, live cobra!

Fortunately, we didn’t want the sign that badly, because once he said 300, we were never going to get him to a more reasonable number, like say, 50 Dirhams.

Lesson 3: Don’t bid twice in a row

Souk Market

Of course, you don’t ever intend to bid twice in a row. But these guys are good at getting you to do just that. Here is a conversation we had with someone about a bracelet, and this guy used a common tactic:

Me: “I’ll buy this bracelet for 30 Dirhams.”

Guy: “C’mon, give me a real offer. What’s your real offer?”

Me: “But that was- ok fine, 40 Dirhams.”

Guy: “80 Dirhams.”

I didn’t end up with this particular bracelet, but did get something – I noticed how he so easily got me to increase my offer without even telling me what he would accept.

This came in handy later, when trying to buy a scarf. I offered the seller 30 Dirhams, at which point he put on an Oscar-worthy performance that included emphatically removing his glasses and staring as though looking at a ghost. He said, “No, what’s your real offer?” but his body language was saying, “I thought I heard you say 30, but of course that can’t be what you said, it’s just so ridiculous. I’d be less shocked if you told me you are actually a camel wearing human clothes, who just needs a scarf for his upcoming trip to Moscow.”

Having seen this move before, it was easy to tell him that 30 was my real offer. He countered with 180 Dirhams. We settled on 50. Brian 1, Moroccan Leonardo DiCaprio 0.

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