The dying art of bargaining in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar

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The elaborate etiquette of the Ottoman Empire lingers in many day-to-day rituals still observed in its greatest creation, the city of Istanbul. A good example is the ubiquitous and highly formalised system of greetings used by all locals, which harks back to the courtly manners refined in the imperial palaces of Topkapi and Dolmabahce. Similarly, the system of doing business over innumerable glasses of tea is as common in today’s fiercely competitive and ultra-modern Turkish banking system as it was back in the days when the sultans received sacks of gold from the turbaned representatives of their far-flung colonies.

Until recently, the art of bargaining was another of these rituals. Times have changed, though, and these days the non-negotiable price-tag reigns supreme in most of the city’s retail outlets. Here, as in many former stops along the legendary Silk Route, the days of camel caravans have long gone, supplanted by multinational retailers, sleek supply-chain management and an increasingly homogenous shopping experience.

Perhaps the only exception to this rule can be found in the city’s carpet shops, particularly those located in what may well be the world’s oldest shopping mall, the magnificent Kapalı Çarşı (Covered Market or Grand Bazaar). Established by Mehmet the Conqueror after he stormed into the city in 1453, the bazaar was the commercial centre of the empire for centuries, and though it has been supplanted by business and retail centres on the other side of the Galata Bridge in recent times, it still houses over 2000 perennially busy retail outlets. Many of these have adopted the modern practice of set pricing, but some - predominantly the carpet shops - still take pride in practising the ancient art of bargaining.

If you are visiting Istanbul and are keen to buy a carpet or rug in the bazaar, the following tips could be helpful:

  • The ‘official’ prices here have almost always been artificially inflated to allow for a bargaining margin ­- 20% to 30% is the rule of thumb.
  • Shopping here involves many aspects of Ottoman etiquette - you will drink tea, exchange polite greetings and size up how trustworthy the shopkeeper is. He, in turn, will drink tea, exchange polite greetings and size up how gullible you are.
  • Never allow yourself to feel pressured to buy something. Tea and polite conversation are gratis - if you accept them, you don’t need to buy anything in exchange.
  • It’s important to do your research. Always shop around to compare quality and pricing.
  • Before starting to bargain, decide how much you like the carpet or rug, and how much you are prepared to pay for it. It’s important that you stick to this - the shopkeepers here are professional bargainers and have loads of practice in talking customers into purchases against their better judgement.
  • Your first offer should be around 60% of the initial asking price. The shopkeeper will laugh, look offended or profess to be puzzled - this is all part of the ritual.
  • He will then make a counter offer of 80-90%. You should look disappointed, explain that you have done your research and say that you are not prepared to pay that amount. Then you should offer around 70%.
  • By this stage you and the shopkeeper should have sized each other up. He will cite the price at which he is prepared to sell and if it corresponds with what you were initially happy to pay, you can agree to the deal. If not, you should smile, shake hands and walk away.

These same rules also apply in some textile, jewellery and antique shops in the bazaar, but they don’t apply to all. Fashionable outlets such as Abdullah Natural Products (www.abdulla.com) and Dervis Bath Accessories and Natural Textiles (www.dervis.com) started the trend toward set pricing here and many other shops have followed their lead.

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So if you were anticipating the process of bargaining in Istanbul with a degree of trepidation, you can now rest easy - the objects of your desire will probably carry set price tags, but if they don’t, our guide should ensure that the process is easy, enjoyable and tinged with Ottoman tradition.