Perfecting the haggle: why it's always worth walking away

How low can you go? Knowing how to bargain can save you dirhams in some of the most unusual places on everything from electronics to carpet to clothing.

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It's around 6pm on a Monday, and the Deira Souk near Dubai Creek is filling up as people finish another day's work. Stepping into a small store called Happy Dawn Trading, I see rows of elegant shoes and colourful clutch purses lining the walls. I come across a beautiful silver clutch with a diamante pattern covering the front, and there's no price written on it. I ready my attack. "How much for this?" I ask "Two-hundred and twenty-five dirhams," the young Indian salesman replies. I make a face; that's more than I want to spend. Noting my expression, he says he can give me his best price of Dh190. I shake my head. That's still too high. "Can you give me a lower price?" I ask. The salesman checks 4with his manager, who looks at the purse and tells me it was handmade in India and is adorned with quality stones. So Dh190, he says, is the lowest he'll go. We'll see about that, I think. I keep my expression neutral, thank them, and say I'll think about it. As I'm heading out the door the salesperson whispers something to the manager, and calls out: "Excuse me, we can make it Dh175 for you." I ask if they can make it lower. "Dh160," they holler immediately. I think about it and say: "OK, I'll buy it for Dh150." He agrees, and we strike a deal. I've saved about 33 per cent off the original price - not bad for my first attempt at haggling. Haggling, or bargaining, is an age-old practice in the region that involves shoppers negotiating with merchants to get the lowest price possible for their goods. It's still prevalent in the UAE's traditional souqs, which sprung up about a century ago when the fishing, pearl diving and sea-trade industries took off.

Today, the old souqs in Dubai and Sharjah still bustle with activity alongside giant, modern-day shopping malls. While the old souq in Abu Dhabi burnt down in 2002, there are plans to open a large, brand-new complex called Central Market in the capital later this year. By bargaining at souqs, consumers can realise significant savings on products as varied as gold jewellery, spices, perfumes and carpets. And now may be the perfect time for shoppers to practice the ancient art: since the onset of the current economic crisis, in 2008, most businesses have experienced a slowdown, and are eager to boost sales by lowering their prices.

Even at the malls - where prices are predominantly fixed - there are some stores that allow haggling. And it's sometimes possible to score discounts in the most unusual places. "Customers bargain much more since the recession," says Kunni Moideen, who is the manager at Emax, an electronics shop at the Mall of Emirates in Dubai. "It's as if it's an open market here rather than a shopping mall," he says with a laugh.

The store usually gives discounts of up to 5 per cent, although customers often ask for a 10 to 20 per cent discount. Often, they also ask to get accessories as part of a bundle with a larger item such as a laptop.  "There's a lot of competition, and business is slower, so we try to compromise in order to close the deal and not lose our customer to a competitor," Mr Moideen says.  It's not only retailers in the UAE who are trying to be more accommodating toward customers. In the UK, 61 per cent of high street shop owners said that they are now more likely to offer discounts on non-sale items in order to close a deal, according to a study by, a price comparison website.

And in the US last year, 81 per cent of consumers who tried to negotiate prices were able to obtain discounts on clothing, and 71 per cent scored lower prices on electronics, according to a 2009 survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.   For Ghazala Mir, a Pakistani freelance make-up artist and skin therapist who lives in Sharjah, haggling has become a way of life.  "I grew up in Pakistan, and bargaining is part of the culture there. I was the oldest one at home, and would often do the groceries and pay bills and so on, so I learnt how to do it for almost everything."

In the UAE, one of the places she likes to shop is at Dragon Mart, a Chinese shopping centre located near Dubai's International City that sells a large variety of economically priced goods. On previous shopping trips Ms Mir has been able to get 5 to 10 per cent off on items such as suitcases, jewellery, linens and handbags.  She says she often tells the salesperson her budget, and tries to bargain for a lower price accordingly.

"If the price for a product is Dh150, and my budget is Dh120, I'll say I can't pay that. I tell them 'perhaps you can come down a little bit and I can come up a little bit'. So we'll agree on Dh130, and at least I get a Dh20 discount."  Ms Mir's best piece of advice is to watch the tone of your voice; an angry haggler is often unsuccessful. "The salespeople are pretty stubborn and don't want to give you a discount, so you have to bargain in a healthy way by smiling and being polite," she explains. "If you talk to them softly, they'll give it to you."

Ms Mir has negotiated even better deals at Meena Bazaar, which is in Bur Dubai, where shoppers can buy textiles and ready-made Indian clothes. She was able to get a 50 per cent discount recently on dresses for her daughter.  "If one dress is Dh200, I can get it for Dh100. From living in Pakistan, I've learnt to always keep in mind that I have to cut the price down by half," she says.  Eva Coles, a Canadian tourist visiting Dubai with her teenage daughters, says the first thing she does when haggling is to ask the seller for his best price, and then negotiate downwards from there. Using this technique recently allowed her to save Dh150 on a pair of jeans that originally cost Dh310.

"I bought jeans, sandals and tourist items from the Karama souq," Ms Coles says. "In most cases, I was able to bring the prices down by half or a little over half."  Ms Coles, who has previously haggled in Mexico, says it's important that shoppers know ahead of time what they're willing to spend on a shopping trip. They should also have an idea about how much items should cost so that they don't overspend.

"I know what things cost at home and I wouldn't allow my teenagers to buy things here for more," she says.  Knowing the price of a particular item can also be used to further advantage. When a consumer tells a salesperson that a competitor is selling the same item for less, it often works in the shopper's favour. In other words, play the merchants off each other for added discounts. Kanta Gupta, an Indian tourist visiting Dubai, was able to lower the price of two golden bangles by Dh170 by using this haggling strategy.

The original price was Dh3,809 at Al Nafis Jewellers in the Gold Souq.  "I told them their making charge was too high, and if they didn't lower it, I would go to a different store," she remembers.   As Ms Gupta discovered, an effective method to achieve a lower price is to simply walk away. If you have spent some time negotiating for an item, the merchant will likely not want to risk losing your money and will often call out a lower price as you leave.

One of the best places to haggle in Dubai is the Deira Souq, which is situated near the Dubai Creek. The maze-like market is filled with shops that sell clothes, shawls, jewellery, shoes, bags and more. Entire streets are dedicated to certain kinds of products; shoppers can find an electronics souq, a textiles souq, a perfumes souq and a spice souq, among others. Another market that shouldn't be missed for its haggling opportunities is the Blue Souq in Sharjah.

Set inside blue-tiled buildings that are cooled by windtowers and connected by bridges, the souq features 600 shops that sell a variety of items, including carpets, furniture, heritage goods and antique jewellery. Oxania Mareichefi, a 24-year-old Russian teacher who is visiting Sharjah with her husband, visited the Blue Souq to buy souvenirs. She says that most merchants were willing to sell her items for as much as a 50 per cent discount after a brief period of haggling.

Among her purchases was a shisha that originally cost Dh450; she took it home for Dh300. "We asked them if Dh450 was their last price. The salesman said Dh400, so we said OK, we can find it for cheaper somewhere else," she says. "Then he went down to Dh360 and we kept asking for a bigger discount, so he went to Dh320, and finally, at Dh300, we were happy with the price. In hindsight, we probably could have got it for even cheaper."

When shopping at souqs, it's a good idea to dress down, as merchants often set their prices based on what they think customers can spend. It's also advisable to tell sellers that you are not a tourist.  Generally, the best bargains can be negotiated on wearable items, such as clothing and shoes. Cornelia Flower Fashion, which sells formal dresses in the Deira Souq, often gives customers a 30 to 40 per cent discount on its goods.

"The selling price for the dresses is about Dh1,000, but nowadays everyone bargains," says Mohammed Naeem, the store's owner. "Customers say things such as that they've seen a similar dress at a cheaper price, or that they have a budget or it's just too expensive. They try to bring the price down to Dh200 or Dh300, which is too low, so we agree on about Dh600 or Dh700," he says. "This allows me to make some profit, which is better than nothing."

Shoppers are unlikely to get the same level of discount at the electronics souq in Deira. These types of stores will usually offer discounts of only between 2 and 5 per cent on products such as televisions and laptops, since the markups on these types of items is small. However, if a customer spends a large amount, the store may throw in a free gift, such as a hairdryer or toaster, if asked.  At the textiles souq, shoppers can negotiate a few dirhams off each yard of fabric (which may cost about Dh10 to start with), and even more if it's the end of the year and the shopkeeper is trying to get rid of stock.

The Gold Souq in Dubai is a favourite bargaining destination for tourists and residents alike. Gold is fixed according to the daily market price, but shoppers can negotiate on workmanship charges, which account for about 10 to 20 per cent of the total cost of a piece of jewellery.  Stores offer between 15 to 30 per cent off the design charges for gold items, such as necklaces, and 15 to 60 per cent off the workmanship for diamond jewellery.

Besides bargaining at souqs, it's also worth checking out the shopping malls in Abu Dhabi and Dubai for discounts. Although restaurants, supermarket chains and well-known retail stores such as Aldo and Debenhams sell their goods at a fixed price, there are certain types of stores that allow bargaining.  At customers' insistence, most shops selling carpets, antiques, handicrafts and artwork say they reduce their prices 10 to 30 per cent.

Steve Trainer, an American tourist visiting Dubai, was able to negotiate a 36 per cent discount on a carpet he bought at the Pride of Kashmir, a store at Mercato Mall in Dubai.  "After I asked them for their best price and realised they were flexible, I kept on negotiating. " I was able to buy the carpet for just Dh3,800, though the original price was Dh6,000," he says.  Stores such as Jumbo Electronics and Better Life, which sells high-end appliances, also give customers between 5 to 10 per cent off on certain products, and kiosks in shopping malls are also open to bargaining.

If in doubt about where haggling is possible and where it isn't, remember that it never hurts to ask.