People haggle all over the world, from the market stalls of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to the real estate offices of Coal Harbour. But it took a 12-year-old boy selling intricately constructed wooden puzzle boxes in the souk in Marrakech to teach me that in this, as in many things, Morocco stands alone.
The stall was well placed, at the corner of one of the souk’s narrow, labyrinthine streets, and the boy — I assumed — was keeping shop while his father, uncle, older brother, or employer was off drinking tea. He called out, as people do here, and the boxes he was selling looked good, well-made, and certainly unusual in this souk that was like a Universal Studios backlot in just how perfectly everything meets your expectations.
He smiled and brought over a box. “This is a nice one,” he said in English, with a proficiency that surprised me. “Can you figure it out?” You needed to slide little bits of wood around in order to open it. I made a token effort, but I was fairly certain this box, all these boxes, would remain as mysterious to me as Rubik’s Cubes always had. I handed it back; he made three moves and, as the box opened, so did his smile. He had a good one, genuine, like he was triply pleased to have solved the box so easily, to have impressed me, and to have maybe clinched a sale. I looked around at some more, with the boy making great flourishing efforts to show me whatever my eye landed on. They were mostly good, but no one came to mind for whom this seemed like an appropriate gift from me, so I told him his boxes were all lovely, but that I wasn’t interested. “How about this one,” he said, holding up the simplest and cheapest, his smile now more toward the angelic end of the scale, a step or so away from the full Duchenne he’d been beaming at me. I smiled back, “No, thanks,” and stepped down from the open-fronted shop onto the street.
“F--- YOU!,” he yelled, and added a couple more ribald phrases, in perfectly idiomatic English. Then he continued, at similar volume, in his Darija Arabic that collapses all the short vowels, rendering his exclamations as long strings of sometimes quite Anglo Saxon-sounding consonants.
It was a shock, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. Everything about haggling in Morocco made it clear it was an unusually high-stakes game, and I hadn’t even bothered to play.
Though the boy’s outburst was the biggest ambush, it had not been the first. It was not unusual for a shopkeeper, after hearing your first counter-offer, to tell you to get out of his store, and be serious about it, so offended was he at the distance between his number and yours.
But that’s the thing about haggling in Morocco: If there’s not a huge difference between those two numbers, you’re doing it wrong.
When haggling over small consumer goods in other parts of the world, you can assume that the quoted price is a great deal more than the price they’re willing to accept, but that it is somewhere in the same neighbourhood. For instance, if the advertised price of a pair of silk boxers at a market in Chiang Rai is 250 baht, you can assume you might be able to go as low as 150, maybe a little lower per pair if you agree to buy two or three. In Jaén, the salesman might let that 125 sol kid’s bike go for 100. Generally speaking, you can assume in any place where haggling is at all possible that the initial ask is within 50 to 100 percent of its actual market value.
But it was at another shop in another souk, this one in Fes, where I leaned just how different things were in Morocco.
I’d followed one middle-aged, American couple into a shop that sold metal-ware. They quickly found a teapot they liked, and asked how much it was. They were humbly quoted the amount of 400 dirhams by the merchant, who cradled it in his hands like it was the work of a thousand hours. The woman smiled at the man, who took out his wallet and handed over the 400, which is about CDN$55. Now, I knew they’d screwed up — they hadn’t haggled at all — but it was only when I stopped following them and went into another shop down the street, saw the same teapot, and entered into a quick, purely academic haggle for it that I learned the true nature of the Moroccan haggle. This shopkeeper opened with 200 dirhams. Such a huge difference, and in the all-important opening gambit, let me to believe all bets may in fact be off, so I said, “Twenty.” He came back with 150. It must have been a bad day, maybe a bad week for this guy to be so easily swayed. “Forty.” “One hundred.” “Forty.” “Ninety.” “Forty.” I didn’t want the thing, but I was enjoying the freefall. “OK, forty.”
Put a pin in that.
There’s a school of thought that suggests rich tourists should not haggle with poor salespeople; that the difference between the tourist price and the market price is so little to we who spend thousands just to pop over in our fancy jets to see the place that we should just eat the $5, $10, or $20. But here’s the thing: Commerce is not charity. Better to do business in a way that respects both the rules for conducting business where you are and the dignity of the salesperson, to obey the universal laws of mutual self-interest, and not assume that your rich-foreigner powers of persuasion and influence will force anyone to sell anything to you at a rate that won’t let them pay their bills. They’re not idiots, or children (mostly). Get the lowest price you’re able — treat it like a sport, as they may also be doing — and rest assured that the lowest it will ever go will still be at least a few notches above the local market value.
Which is to say I felt fine sticking at 40 dirhams for the teapot. I didn’t take it — I didn’t want it, and the shop was empty, so I wasn’t keeping him from other, more profitable business. He didn’t swear at me, like the boy did, presumably because this time, I did play, and mostly by the rules. Though I didn’t end up buying it — I imagine consumers are permitted to change their minds even in Morocco — I did engage. And the episode taught me just how vertiginous the Moroccan haggle is. That first merchant, the one who sold the teapot to the Americans, opened with a price that was 10 times the amount the second merchant was willing to take, which was — as we’ve seen — still probably slightly more than they would have sold it, at profit, to a fellow Moroccan. I’d never seen anything like it, and still haven’t.
But what might be called the Moroccan Stratagem is something you absolutely need to know. I did end up buying some scarves and some white slippers using my new daredevil haggling skills, and got good prices for both. The first time I wore one of the scarves, I got a big red stain on my neck from the dye. When I washed it, the sink turned red; the dye just kept running. The slippers lasted till I got home, but the soles fell off a month or so later, after a dozen or so walks around in them. So, I still probably paid too much, but they were pretty, briefly, which is all we expect of a flower or a butterfly. And they were fun to buy, so I’m fine with it.
Think you've got what it takes to haggle at the souks of Morocco? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Morocco here.