Chatuchak Market, Bangkok

The Art of Bargaining

Growing up in Bangkok, I got used to bargaining when I go out shopping. As long as it’s not a high-end department store, there are plenty of opportunities for haggling.  If done properly, it’s a win-win situation for both the seller and the buyer. The seller wants the buyer to bargain so that they can close the deal quicker. The buyer, on the other hand, finds personal fulfillment out of picking up a few good bargains.

There’s real pleasure to be found in getting a bargain, as scientifically attested by a 2007 study by a team of neurological researchers from Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon. Using fMRI technology to detect brain activity of the test subjects, the researchers found that when the subjects saw a desirable object on sale, the nucleus accumbens, or the pleasure center, in their brains lit up, pointing to greater joy and satisfaction.

Chatuchak Market, Bangkok

Photo: Dave Stamboulis

However, we can’t just keep on quibbling over some figures all the time. Here are a few tips on the art of bargaining:

No bargaining  over food

When it comes to dining, bargaining is a complete no-no. Haggling over the price of food is usually frowned upon and can be considered an affront to many vendors.

Food is a big part of Thai life, and Thai culture is pretty much a rich food culture. Great Thai food is inexpensive and Thais get a meal just around every street corner. So, better not bargain about something that’s already inexpensive.

However, if you’re a frequent patron, the seller can sometimes be generous and can add extra rice or offer a bigger portion. So be friendly, show up often, but never try to haggle over the price of your som tum.

 Goods with price tags

Don’t ever think of bargaining at places like upscale shopping malls or department stores. However, bargaining takes on a whole new level at places like roadside stalls and wholesale paradises like MBK or Platinum Fashion Mall. At these places, prices are usually marked up as if to test customers’ bargaining skills. The norm is if you want to buy just one item, there’s no way but to embrace the price tag, but if you plan to buy in bulk start haggling.

 Take a walk before you park

Before making a purchase, remember to spend time browsing shops to gauge the median price. In most cases, you’ll find an array of price rags for the same product across different stores.

If you have a ballpark figure in mind for an item you’re looking for, pick the shop that’s most friendly and has the best deal. Bargaining should always start from that end.

 Smile and be friendly

The majority of retail shops are not always in the business of ripping people off. Even if they want to, there’s not much money to be made as a result. Just as businesses need to make a profit to survive, it’s a good idea to be friendly, keep smiling and prepare to bargain for a reasonable price.

Make sure you spare some profit margin for the seller so that the purchase is a win-win solution for everyone. A little kindness does go a long way here in Bangkok.

Shopping, like all arts, needs practice to achieve perfection. There’s no better place to practice your negotiation skills than in Bangkok. One has every opportunity to become a smarter shopper in the Land of Smiles with a bit of learning by trial and error.

Born and raised in Bangkok, J. Pakchuen studied English and translation at Chulalongkorn University. Currently, she lives in Washington, D.C. where she works as a translator, interpreter, writer, and tour guide.