Haggling Is Part of the Fun in Egyptian Markets
an essay by Adel Murad (1)

“There are many tourists who are not used to the concept of negotiating deals or haggling over prices, but these skills are part of the fun of shopping in Egypt and may be useful in other places too.

“Haggling is an art. But it should only be used in the right place. In some exclusive shops, supermarkets, coffee shops, restaurants, clubs, and public transport there is usually no haggling. Haggling is acceptable in the old souks (markets) where you can buy anything from gold bracelets to replica gifts and Egyptian dresses. Haggling in these outlets is permitted, and sometimes expected, as a way of communication and exchanging information.

“There is an art to haggling, and many ways to make sure you don’t pay too much. You also want to make sure that you offer a fair and adequate price for the gifts you buy. If you are not sure what to do, try to enlist some local help. Also do some homework to gain a little inside knowledge of the value of what you intend to buy and the limit of what you are prepared to pay. Always look at the price tag as the recommended price, which is negotiable. If you pay with cash, not a credit card, you have more leverage to get a good discount. Shops prefer cash.

“Haggling is effective when buying high value items, such as gold and jewelry, but with low value items it is usually not worth the time and effort. Paying the full price for small items is a gesture of support for the small trader.

“If you want a bargain be prepared to spend some time shopping around and have a rough idea what the item is worth. Ask some local friends (or your tour guide) how much they would pay for such an item, and then allow a fraction above that as a margin for being ‘out of town.’ Most expatriate Egyptians follow these guidelines when returning home for visits or holiday. They do not mind sometimes paying a little more, knowing they still have a bargain in terms of their own purchasing power.

“When I return to Egypt, I do not apply any haggling rules and choose instead to chat with shopkeepers about their trade and the market conditions. Sometimes I am surprised to be offered a discount without even asking for one. Ideally you should take an Egyptian friend shopping with you, but since that is not always feasible, do some homework. Shop around. If you have time to spare, do not buy at the first shop; you can always come back. Shopkeepers will try to persuade you that they offer you the best value, but will not be offended when you say you want to look around and may come back. Timing is also important. You stand a better chance for getting a bargain late at night than earlier in the day.

“When buying gold settle the price per gram, not the price per item. For other valuables you can always say a friend bought a similar item for less. Negotiate only with those who can make instant decisions. If you are not sure, ask to see the shop manager or owner.

“Haggling is easier if you are buying more than one item; a discount is expected for buying in bulk, so it makes sense to buy as a group of three of four, together. Also, if you can point any defect in the goods, such as poor finishing on a dress, or a fading color somewhere, you should be able to get some money off the asking price.

“If you are an independent traveler, or on a budget, you can apply the same negotiating principles to booking hotel rooms, and other services. Sometimes it is easier to discuss prices over the telephone than face to face. You can even offer your price before coming to Egypt by telephone or by e-mail.

“There are places where haggling is not the norm, and these include supermarket chains, where the stock is computerized, and fruit and vegetable markets where the profits are so marginal they are not worth discounting.

“Prices, however, have to be put in perspective. Egypt is still fairly cheap, at least for tourists who exchange U.S. dollars. The purchasing power of the U.S. dollar in Egypt is almost double that of the dollar in most parts of the U.S. To make your life simple, you can draw a line about what is not worth haggling about. Items below L.E. 40 (roughly $8 in 2010) are not usually worth the effort or the waste of precious holiday time. If you still think an item is overpriced, then offer your own price and walk away. This will put the vendor in a ‘yes or no’ situation.

“The Arabic language could be a handicap in dealing with some traders in Egypt, although increasing numbers of merchants know at least one foreign language in addition to Arabic. But do not feel at a disadvantage. In these situations, the phrase books and the time and effort in learning some basic Arabic expressions become invaluable. You will be surprised how far you can negotiate with a limited vocabulary. Here is an example:

  • Be kam? (How much?)
  • Khamseen geneeh (L.E. 50)
  • La’a, da ghaali awy. (No, that’s very expensive)
  • Mumkin be talateen? (Is it possible for L.E. 30)
  • Laa mush mumkin… Arbaeen geneeh? (Not possible… L.E. 40?)
  • Laa, ma’aya talateen bas. (No I only have L.E. 30)

“So, here you are. The trader can agree to sell for L.E. 30, or you can find another L.E. 10 in your pocket and clinch the deal. In most cases though, the L.E. 10 is worth more to the small Egyptian trader than it is to the buyer. I know that most tourists to Egypt are not rich, but in relative terms they are still much better off than the average Egyptian trader.

“So, when it comes to shopping, know what you want, and negotiate hard to get it for the right price. Otherwise, don’t waste your time haggling over trivia or buying stuff you do not need. As most travelers know, the best bargains of holiday time often become clutter around the house, and end up in yard sales. So, after all the haggling, it may be worth paying a little more to get what you really want.

“There is no golden rule for haggling except offering what you think is a fair price. With a new exchange rate of more than L.E. 5 to the U.S. dollar, Egypt is cheaper now than at any time in the past; the average tourist can afford to be a little generous, and still save money.”


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