The Dying Art of Bargaining

The elaborate etiquette of the Ottoman Empire lingers in many day-to-day rituals still observed in its greatest creation, İstanbul. Until recently the art of bargaining was one of these. 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 Road, the days of camel caravans have long gone, supplanted by multinational retailers, sleek supply-chain management and an increasingly homogeneous shopping experience.

Perhaps the only exception to this rule can be found in the city’s carpet shops, particularly those located in the Grand Bazaar. Many of these still take pride in practising the ancient art of bargaining.

If you are visiting İstanbul and are keen to buy a carpet or rug in the bazaar, keep the following tips in mind:

  • The ‘official’ prices have almost always been artificially inflated to allow for a bargaining margin, with 20% to 30% the rule of thumb.
  • Shopping here involves many aspects of Ottoman etiquette. You will drink tea, exchange polite greetings and size up the trustworthiness of the shopkeeper. He, in turn, will drink tea, exchange polite greetings and size up your gullibility.
  • Never feel pressured to buy something. Tea and 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 practise 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, which is all part of the ritual.
  • He will then make a counter offer of 80% to 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.

The same rules also apply in some textile, jewellery and antique shops in the bazaar, but they don’t apply to all. The fashionable stores in Halıcılar Çarşışı Sokak started the trend towards set pricing here a number of years ago and many other shops have followed their lead.