Everyone likes a good bargain when shopping. But what everyone doesn’t know is that the true art of bargaining can be found in the many colorful markets scattered across West Africa. If you want true bargains, get out of Shoprite and trek to Sandaga, Madina Market, or whichever your nearest West African market is.
Shopping In West Africa
Mind you, for deals the operational word is market. Not mini-market or mini-marché. As you’ll soon find out, they aren’t budging on the prices either and eventually you’re going to have to get off your high horse and admit that the bargain bug bit you. And that’s a good thing. You’ll not only get to hit the town and see the non-expat and non-touristy aspects of living in a vibrant West African city, you’ll also get to indulge in spontaneous and witty tête-à-têtes with strangers, and discover just how far flattery will get you. Long story short, knowing how to bargain is a shopping and travel essential; even more so when you’re traveling to West Africa for the first time.
Woven into the very fabric and shopping culture of the sub-region’s largely open-air markets, bargaining can be considered a cross between a ritualistic love dance, hard-ball negotiation, and playful banter. If you’ve never been to West Africa or if you’ve spent a huge part of your life in the United States or Europe, this whole approach to shopping might sound alien to you. Don’t worry, you’ll catch on soon enough…after overpaying for one, two, or three items of course. That’s the way they break you in. Been away for a bit and still in that constantly-converting-everything-from-one-currency-to-another-zone? They’ve got a special kind of love just for you as well. Hey, what can they say? There’s a lot of love to share.
It might sound unbelievable, but bargaining is more popular than football. Regardless of what you do, you can’t escape it. From food to clothing to artifacts to even services like a taxi ride or getting an outfit made, nothing is off the table. If you do actually succeed in escaping the bargain bug, it means you’re overpaying for practically everything you’re getting, or you haven’t really looked for the bargain spots. Now maybe you have more than enough money to go around or you’re just riding on an abnormal (luxury) demand curve – and that’s perfectly fine – but you’re missing out on the spice of West African lifestyle and doing business if you opt off the bargain express.
The Art of Bargaining
From living and shopping in Ghana, Senegal and Ivory Coast, I’ve found that there’s somewhat of a general rule to bargaining on prices at a local market. The general rule has proven its worth. Ninety percent of the time I get what I or a friend wants for exactly the price I or they are willing to pay for (or even less) and the merchant usually ends up saying “You, you know money eh. You’re my sister/friend!” or something to that effect.
Again, there’s very little off the bargain table when you’re shopping at a local market. Whether you’re purchasing jewelry at the beach or getting that African print material from the fabric section downtown, you generally have some leeway with how much you pay for something. What’s the general rule for bargaining? Take the price proposed by merchant, divide it by two and then divide one half by two. Or simply, divide it into quarters. Once that’s done, you state a price a few notches below 25% of whatever price they stated. Remember, the first price is always a proposition and realistically, way above the actual price.
TIP 1: It’s also helpful if you have a sense of how much you’re actually willing to pay before you start talking or bargaining (your budget) – ask around. Remember to keep it to yourself, or between yourselves if you’re with a friend who’ll be bargaining on your behalf. Generally, the first person to name a price loses some power. Having a sense of the general range of pricing for whatever you’re interested in buying is particularly useful if you encounter a merchant who is reluctant to make the first move by stating a price. Remember, it’s a dance, they are also sizing you up.
Let’s see how this plays out in a real-life example. You want to take a taxi 40 minutes out of Dakar, so you stop one and tell the taxi driver where you’re going. The driver proposes 10,000CFAs as the price. Being the savvy shopper you are, you have already done some research and know or have made up your mind not to pay more than 3500 CFA or 4,000 CFA if you’re pressed for time. Let’s look at the kind of exchange that would ensue.
You: 10,000 CFAs Ce n’est pas vrai! D’ici à …? (10,000CFAs? For real? Just from Dakar to…?)
Driver: Oui, c’est le prix. Aucune blème? (Yes, that’s the cost. Any problem?)
You: Bah, oui (Of course). C’est trop cher! (It’s too expensive!)
Driver: Bon, vous donnez combien? (Ok, how much will you pay?)
You: 2000 CFA [General Rule in Action] You divided into quarters and went down a few notches giving yourself bargaining power or leeway of 1,500 – 2,000 CFA.
Tip 2: Many merchants have one pricing bracket for locals and another for foreigners. f you have a non-native accent that is “foreign” to the country you’re in, you might wanna cover it up as much as possible when shopping. It’s a glaring “newbie shopper” sign. If you’re a local who has an “acquired” foreign accent, please, save both you and the merchant some time and money and just speak in your local language.
Driver: 2,000 CFA? C’est petit (2,000 CFA? It’s too little). Je pars (I’m leaving).
You: Ey, attends (hey, wait). On parle, non? (We’re talking, no?) Alors, diminue le prix un peu (Reduce the price a bit).
Driver: Bon, tu es ma soeur, alors donne-moi 5000 CFA (Ok, you’re my sister, so give me 5,000 CFA). [General Rule in Action] He halved the price. He realizes you know (of) the rules and won’t get a huge overprice on you.
Tip 3: Once they play the sister/brother/friend card, you can use the same card as well. This is where the playful banter comes in. For example, you may respond: ‘You said I’m your sister, so be nice to me and reduce the price.’ or ‘Yes, I’m your sister, I live here too so give me the local price.’ However, it’s advisable to play this card as a last resort.
You: Okay, je te donne 3,000 CFA. (Okay, I will give you 3000 CFA)
Driver: Non, c’est pas bon. D’ici a…c’est loin. Il y a l’emboutaillage. (No, it’s not enough. From here to …. is too far. There’s traffic.)
You: Mais 5,000 CFA c’est beaucoup eh. Chaque jour je prends cette route et je paye 3,000 CFA ou 3 500 CFA max. (But 5,000 CFA is too much eh. I’m on this route every day and I pay 3,000 CFA or 3,500 CFA max.)
Tip 4: Even if you’ve never taken that route before, you need to let them know that you know how much the rates are. To find that out, ask a local – a friend, colleague, neighbor or even hotel staff. Asking questions is a travel essential. You won’t know until you ask.
Driver: Ok, paye 4,500 CFA et on part (Ok, pay 4,500 CFA and lets’ go)
You: C’est beaucoup pour moi. Toujours je paye 3,500 CFA, alors c’est tout que j’ai avec moi. Eh, je suis ta soeur, eh. (It’s too much for me. I always pay 3,500 CFA, that’s all I have with me. I’m your sister, am I not it?)
Driver: Most likely silent.
You: Okay bon, je prends un autre taxi. (Okay, I’ll take another taxi) [General Rule in Action] Take a few steps away from the merchant, you’re basically establishing your price limit. By playing the familiarity card, you’ve also put out that you know the game.
Driver: Bon, donne 4,000 CFA et on part. (Okay, pay 4000 CFA and let’s go).
You: Sigh deeply. And enter the taxi. Bargain in hand.
Tip 5: This entire exchange should take no more than a few minutes. If it takes anywhere close to ten minutes you have yourself a stubborn merchant. Find another one.
The Importance of Context When Bargaining
Alors, there you have it! The art of bargaining. Remember, it’s supposed to be a light-hearted exchange. No fists involved. Go with the flow. If you’re in a hurry, a bad mood, or not ready to have some fun with it, please pay the proposed amount and let everyone have some peace of mind.It’s also important to pay attention to context when deciding when or how to bargain. Things may not always pan out as depicted in the scenario above.
For instance, a woman trying these shopping tactics on a female merchant may have a harder time succeeding.The experience is different for different people and yes, you will eventually overpay on one item or the other at some point (I paid four times the amount for an outfit my first time in Dakar and then vowed never to overpay again). That said, don’t dwell on it too much (It took me months to get over that swindle). You’ll make up for your losses with great bargains along the way, and in due time you’ll be a master bargainer.
All that said, it’s important to be fair. While bargaining is a norm in West Africa it shouldn’t be used as an opportunity to pay less than the value of an item or service. The reality is that many merchants live hand to mouth and so the sale of the day makes a huge difference in that person’s life and/or that of his or her family. Try to be fair and follow the golden rule: do unto others, what you would have others do unto you. Pay the right price, as Paulo Coelho suggests.
Share your bargaining tips and experiences
Already consider yourself a pro when it comes to shopping and bargaining the West African way? Ever had a bargain go wrong or a merchant try to double cross you? Which bargain tactics have worked for you? Know an African country where the culture of bargaining is non-existent? Leave a comment below. Thanks for reading.