Haggling or bargaining is a way of life in Indonesia and the crafts people of Bali have taken to this just as they have taken to arts and crafts. For a western traveler not familiar with negotiating prices this can take some getting used to. You have to remember everything is negotiable. Back in 2002 I wrote an article about bargaining and a lot of it is still true. Here is an updated version.
My strategy for success.
I try to keep in mind that in every transaction, one party wants it to happen more than the other, and that puts them at a disadvantage. In my case, the seller (guest house owner, taxi driver, craftspersons) wants to sell me something more than I want to buy it. I have the choice and they want my money. So no stress, I just look around and take my time. If I see something I want, I wait until the seller is alone, so they can cut me a deal without other people knowing and ask the price. I then offer 20%-30%. In Bali they love to haggle slowly and it’s possible to spend half an hour going back and forth. I don’t go up too fast and am always prepared to walk away. This is a good tactic and will help you get a bargain.
I advise you not to buy ANY souvenirs in your first three days in Bali. Enjoy walking (jalan jalan) and looking (lihat saja) and let yourself get acquainted with what’s on offer and what the prices are.
In Kuta and other touristy parts of the island, you will run into local guys who want to be your guide, and show you their ‘friend’s’ shop. Their ‘friend’ is usually a stranger and if you buy something they’ll tack on an extra percentage to be picked up by your new friend at a later date. If you don’t mind then no worries, just realize what’s going on.
Finally here’s a method one guy uses that you might also try if you have the time. This method is designed for goods such as artwork and crafts, not really for taxi rides.
‘Years ago a Greek friend showed me how to bargain for anything. It has stood me in good stead since then and I don’t think my friend ever paid full price for anything in his life. Perhaps it is a way to make your money go further with a little effort and thought as to how to apply it. The technique is as follows:
First of all you have to realize that insulting someone by offering a ridiculously low price is not the way to start. Assuming you want something, ask the price. Say that it is really beautiful, great craftsmanship, etc. (whatever fits the item to be purchased) but it is more than you planned to spend. Then ask if that is the best price they could offer you. Whatever the next price they offer is, just repeat that it is beautiful, you can see how it is worth that much but it is more than you planned to spend. If they ask how much you want to pay, DO NOT OFFER A PRICE. Just repeat that it is worth what they are asking but it is more than you planned to spend. Then ask if they could let you have it for any less. Continue this process as long as they keep offering a lower price. NEVER MAKE AN OFFER.
When they won’t go any lower, say thank you, repeat it is wonderful and well worth the price they have quoted but it is more than you can afford to spend. Head for the door. IF they let you leave, it was the best offer. Wait 15 minutes go back, say you have reconsidered and will take it at the last price. If they don’t let you go out the door but instead make another offer, repeat that it is a truly incredible item and the price is more than fair but it is still more than you wanted to spend. Head for the door again. NEVER buy until they let you leave and you have to return.
The more of their time you take up doing this, the more desperate they become to make the sale. They start seeing their time as an investment that is going to go to waste. My Greek friend, in true Greek fashion, would sometimes visit a place several times over days and even weeks before buying. The art is in making them believe you truly want the item, truly think it is marvelous and truly don’t have the money.
My best bargain ever was on a case of Canadian Club whiskey. It was in a small shop in a small village on Rhodes. Covered in years of dust it was obvious they couldn’t sell it. It happens to be my favorite tipple. I asked the price of a bottle, said I loved the stuff but couldn’t afford it. After about 20 minutes I walked out with the whole case for £4 a bottle and you know, every one of those bottles tasted better than CC ever had before.’
You choose which method suits you best.
Since living in Bali I have learned some new ideas also. Ika told me that some Indonesians find it rude, for a customer to say they are ‘price shopping’, or walk out saying ‘I can get it cheaper around the corner’. I think that by now vendors in Kuta are used to westerners and you can speak your mind, just remember to keep it civil.
Some businesses do not allow you to bargain. These are place with posted prices. For example a nicknack shop will not have prices posted, they are relying on your lack of local knowledge to get them a higher price. Places like The Curl stock expensive surf gear, all labeled, no negotiation. They are relying on their style / brand being able to convince you to buy. In other words, they are not trying to be the cheapest, they are competing on ‘quality’.
Foreigners who are not used to bargaining, often feel like fish out of water. They don’t know what the going rate for stuff is, they can’t speak the language and get the impression that the seller may not be telling the whole truth. We feel like we are on the back foot, but there are times when the tables are turned. Chinese Indonesians are street savvy and smart. Many of them own businesses are are very familiar with buying and selling. Handicraft vendors have told me the Chinese Indonesians are great bargainers. The strategy they use is to buy in bulk. Pick up a stack of 10 shirts, chuck on a couple of hats, a picture and wind chime and say ‘”Okay I give 200,000rp for the lot.” This is a great way to shop, particularly if you need gifts at the end of your trip. Do one fell swoop and tell them what the pile is worth.
Right now (April 2006) Bali is experiencing an economic decline. Hopefully the economy will pick up, but during times like your bargaining powers are greater. I often don’t go for the ultimate cheap price and allow the vendor to make a few thousand extra rupiah, to help them out. As with real estate, location, location, location is a big factor affecting price. Restaurants and shops in desirable places, pay high rent and have to charge more. A restaurant on Jl. Legian, or Kuta Beach has to charge double what a place on Poppies II charges, to make money. By choosing places that are away from the beach, not on a main road, or in a fancy area, prices will be lower for accommodation, food, services and goods. That’s without even having to negotiate.
Lastly, Balinese are friendly and right now are going through hard times. Bargaining is a great way to interact and part of life in this country. No need to get to serious about it though, you are on holiday trying to relax, and they are just trying to make a living.