Indonesia shopping tips


A Thorn Tree member asked on the South-East Asia branch: What are the best things to buy in Indonesia, and what is the shopping etiquette?
Here is nasuhime's excellent reply:

What is the proper/polite way to bargain in Indonesia?

Smile, smile, and smile. And bargain for only what you really want to buy.

  • Rely and use body language for up to 80% of the bargaining.
  • The more subtle and vague you can be, the better your position is. Do not be firm about your limit or indicate your real intention.
  • Avoid open confrontation at all cost. If unfortunately it escalates to one, your chance of a good bargain is ruined already and it is best to just do not buy there and go look somewhere else.
  • The less words you say, almost always the better. Even if you can't speak much Indonesian, just smile and repeat: "more" and point down with your hand (to indicate I want more bargain/can you lower more).
  • To disagree, move your head from right to left, or even pout a little, but try not to say loudly: no, no, no.
    Image of a smiling stall owner by sektordua

Here is an example of how to bargain:

Let the seller greet you first and respond in kind, smiling a little.
Seller: Any item you are looking for?
You: I'm browsing (Liat-liat)
Seller: Where are you from?
You: Yogya, Solo, Bandung, etc. (Of course the seller means your nationality, but you can cheat by answering where you've travelled from, which gives an impression that you are not a tourist from abroad, but that you work/study/live in another city in Indonesia. If they think you have some local experience and knowledge they will treat you differently from a brand-new tourist.)
You: (if there is no price label) How much is this? (Ini berapa?)
(if there is a price) Is it negotiable? (Boleh kurang?)
Seller: It is a fixed price (Harga pas).
You: Oh, too bad... (look just a little down)
If you want to buy more in quantity, or you find another item you like, you can try bargaining based on multi-purchase price.
You: If I take two? If I take this and this...? (Kalau ambil dua...?)
Seller: OK, xxx rupiah.
You: (If the opening price is not exorbitant and your goal is to lower it down) Mmm... is that your best? (Tidak kurang lagi?) (don't forget your really nice smile now)
If the price is crazily high, simply mutter: Expensive, isn't it? (Mahal yah?). By toning down your comment to a question — as if you're asking the seller to agree that the price is too expensive — you put yourself and the seller on the same side. Do not make absolute statements, such as: That is expensive! or say what you think the best price is. That way you put yourself against the seller and, worst, state that you are right and they are wrong.
Seller: How much do you want?
You: Your very best price (Yang paling pasnya berapa?) (Smile your best now, you are really insisting at this point, but you are not rude, so the seller might finally give in because you are serious and a really nice customer.)
Seller: xxx rupiah.
If the price is still too far from what you're ultimately ready to pay, walk out of the shop. The seller might call you back and lower once more. Once it is near your range, it is your turn to start naming numbers.
You: Let's round it down to xxx rupiah, OK? (Buletin jadi xxx yah? Boleh yah?) (smile and smile and smile)
From this point on, whatever the seller says, you simply repeat the mantra: "xxx rupiah, boleh yah? :D" until hopefully the seller relents to your price or very near to it.

When is bargaining not acceptable?

Honestly? My experience has taught me that if one knows how to bargain properly, then anything can be bargained for in Indonesia.

The key is to correctly identify who is in charge of the place. If the owner is there, all the better. Even at formal establishments, for example upon entering a restaurant but before being seated, ask if there is discount. For accommodation, the first thing you say after replying to their greeting is: Is there a discount? You want to give an impression that you are shopping around, you have several choices, you are after a bargain and if there is no extra incentive, you will most likely walk away. Most of the time, the person in charge will quickly try to keep you interested by throwing in something.

Do not make the mistake of asking the bored or couldn't-care-much staff. They will really just answer your question: there is a discount if there is a discount, there is not when there is not. You want somebody who can make a discount happen when there is not.

What are some good things to shop for in Indonesia?

Basically, local wares, clothing, arts/crafts, jewellery and other locally hand-made products.

  • The queen of all Indonesian traditional crafts is batik. This does not mean your choice is limited to clothing. Batik is essentially a dyed cloth, so once the fabric becomes batik, it can then be further tranformed into all sorts of products: bags, hats, fans, curtains, tablecloths, bed linen, tea coasters, mats, decorative screens, etc, etc.
  • Clothing: The highest quality (and has often the most beautiful pattern) batik is the hand-painted kind (batik tulis).
  • Arts: The very best is leather shadow puppets (wayang kulit), the more affordable is wooden doll puppets (wayang golek).
  • Jewelry: Silver is the most decorative and original, but in the budget end there isn't much choice. I find it nearly impossible to get good quality for other metals (all that I've bought has turned greenish gray, black, dull, or broke).
  • Wooden or leather offers a very wide range — you need to check carefully if the price matches the quality.
  • Precious gems and pearls — I never bought any and I heard you should take extra care.
  • Anything bamboo-based is very affordable, with many nice products to choose from, but... some, especially the most intricatedly woven kind, grow moldy easily (depending on the climate where you live).
    Image of batik being made, taken by irwandy

Where is a good place to shop for these sorts of things?

  • In Jakarta: Sarinah Department Store. This is the one and only place I buy all my Indonesian traditional crafts. Don't be put off, it is not the ultra-trendy hip mega-mall superstore sort of place. It is super old, with only few people browsing. People only go there because they want to buy good and fairly-priced products.
    The whole top floor has all kinds of traditional crafts. All items are clearly labelled and priced, no haggling, no hassle — you are free to browse on your own, touch, try, go through all in the shelf, without anybody frowning or pushing you to this and that. But if you need help, there are staff and they are very polite and helpful. The quality of the products range from medium-high to high-high range, but the price is fair and reasonable.
  • If you know exactly what you want, for example, bamboo crafts or wayang puppets, then look for specialised artisan workshops. Many of them double as the shops. You can buy directly from the artists, with most charging reasonable prices and you can ask them about their arts and crafts. So nice. Problem is, it is probably not the most time-wise and may require some Indonesian language knowledge.