Sunday, June 2, 2013

How to shop in the souks and bazaars in Turkey, Morocco, or wherever!

One of the coolest parts of visiting Muslim countries in the East or North Africa is shopping in the bazaars and souks. Walking through mazelike streets, surrounded on all sides by a huge variety of goods for sale, haggling with pushy shopkeepers vying for your attention, and the noise, smells, sights, and sounds of the chaos that is a souk or bazaar is a little overwhelming, but an experience unlike any other.

I gotta say that Fionn is a pro at the souks and bazaars. Before we met he traveled in Israel, Jordan, Dubai, and Eastern Europe (where Ottoman influence left a bazaar culture), so he taught me a thing or two about bazaar shopping when we visited Morocco and Turkey together.

So here are our tips for shopping in souks and bazaars!

1. Know what you want

This is important because when you first enter the bazaar, there is so much to look at that you can easily get distracted by the first thing you see. The shopkeeper will pounce and get his sale before you know if 1) there's something better a few shops down or 2) this is a good price for this item.

If you're a planner like me, search the internet before your trip to see what're the best souvenirs from the place you're visiting. Are silk scarves really cheap there? Do you want decorative plates or slippers or lanterns or a carpet? If you can, get an idea of the price before you head to the bazaar.

Our favorite thing to do is to do a walkthrough before we agree to buy anything. Even if we stop, we almost never buy something at the first stall we visit. If it was really that awesome, we'll come back. The shopkeepers will be pushy, but avoid making eye contact or stopping to look intently at any item, which will encourage them to approach you and start the sales pitch. Once you've had a glance at what the bazaar has to offer, go back to a stall that really caught your eye.

2. Get your haggling game face on

Try to look a little more serious than this lady...

I hate to haggle, but Fionn is really good at it. When I asked him his secret, he said he has two rules:

1. He decides the maximum he's willing to pay and refuses to go over it
2. He's perfected the "walk away"

Pretty much it works like this: the shopkeeper will first offer a higher price and you have to haggle him down to something reasonable. Fionn decides the price he'd be wiling to pay and then usually gives the guy two chances to make him a deal. If the shopkeeper takes longer than that, Fionn says "No, thanks." and starts walking away. And then 9 times out of 10 the shopkeeper comes running after him with a much better deal.

I swear, this works wonders.

When I asked, "what if he calls your bluff and doesn't run after you?" Fionn replied, "Unless it's something really unique that I can't find anywhere else, I can probably find a better price a few stalls down since most stalls carry similar things. So I'm willing to take that risk. And if none of them will budge, that's probably just a decent price for the item, so I'll take it if I really like it."

If you have the patience to haggle it out, then by all means have at it. Some people like that, and the offers of tea, and the compliments and conversation, but I just always feel pressured to buy something I'm not really into, hence why we let Fionn do the haggling. :)

That being said, don't go crazy low with your haggling-you don't want to insult the shopkeeper!

3. Have a good cop/bad cop plan

This has always worked well for us. Usually I am good cop-I look at the item, I decide what i want, then Fionn swoops in and does the hard bargaining and is the one who says yes or no. The shopkeeper knows he's got to make the sale before bad cop influences good cop.

Things never change...

We've also done this in reverse where Fionn couldn't get rid of a pushy shopkeeper so I was bad cop and pulled the "wife says no" card. It worked well and we left pushy shopkeeper and his ugly belt behind us.

This works well for us. You don't want to be a unified unfriendly front, but you also don't want to be seen as pushovers.

4. "I'm going to think about it, is that ok?"

This was a tip from my Moroccan friend, Laura. She said her mom taught her this as a kid when shopping in Marrakech's souks. If a shopkeeper is being pushy and you need an exit plan, just tell them, "I'm going to walk around and think about it." It implies you might come back without the actual promise. Worked for me! :)

5. Ignore the compliments

As you're walking around, they'll probably compliment you, tell you about how awesome this would look on you, etc... don't respond to these comments unless you want to stop and start haggling with them. Any hesitation will have a shopkeepers on you in seconds. They are really fast. So if you don't want to stop and engage them, don't pay them any mind! They'll be on the couple behind you 2 seconds after you pass...

6. Shopkeepers can be very touchy, but keep it in check

When Fionn and I walked together through the souks and bazaars in Turkey and Morocco, the shopkeepers were always calling out for your attention and trying to grab you and pull you into their store. When we walked together their touching and grabbing were always directed to Fionn (along with calls of, Come, my friend!) and they gave me a WIDE berth. We started walking with me on the outside because that way they would only call out and wouldn't try to touch us.

Some shopkeepers would only address Fionn (even when I was asking the questions and paying from my own wallet!) and completely looked through me. I understand this was a cultural thing-it would've been inappropriate for them to have been especially friendly to me while my husband stood by and extremely inappropriate for them to touch me.

However, some of the times I wandered away on my own, I was constantly harassed by shopkeepers, and solo female travelers we met said the same thing. I had a shopkeeper grab my arm and pull me backwards one of them times Fionn was walking up ahead of me, which made me really mad. Luckily Fionn turned around in time to see it and ran over to me, but it just reminded me that sometimes jerks will take advantage of a woman walking by herself.

While I was lucky to have Fionn to walk around with, if you're a woman by yourself, be assertive. There are plenty of nice people who won't bother you, but jerks live in every country and if you feel uncomfortable, get yourself out of the situation. You're not obliged to talk to these shopkeepers or visit their stores, and feel free to tell them to stop if need be! (I sure did to that one guy!)

7. Don't look at carpets unless you want a carpet. Seriously.

By FAR the pushiest shopkeepers we encountered were the carpet sellers. Makes sense, since some of those carpets go for THOUSANDS of dollars.

We made this mistake in Istanbul. We agreed to "just look" at a friendly carpet seller's stall in the Grand Bazaar-almost 45 minutes later, a dozen carpets unrolled for us, and a very irritated shopkeeper, we finally had to be like, no SERIOUSLY, we don't want one! Sorry, but we're newlyweds in our 20s...we don't have the money or the space for a carpet, dude!

And sorry, I just don't think 8,000 euros is a deal... :P

That being said, they were absolutely beautiful, so I can see how you can eventually be worn down and agree to drop some serious cash on a carpet. In Morocco we agreed on the flight to Marrakech that there would be no carpet store visits, even to just look. We'll save that purchase for when we're old and have oodles of money to spend haha...

So there you have it! Check out those souks and bazaars and get shopping!


  1. I think the bit about carpets is hilarious. When our professors let us loose in Istanbul, the only "rules" were do: do not, under any circumstances, walk into a rug shop.
    And my little piece: If there are a bunch of the same type of item (scarves, mirrors, etc) don't don't don't pick out the one you love and let the seller know you love it!! :) talk price and only then indicate which one you want.
    And my female friend and I each received multiple marriage proposals while at the Grand Bazaar. bah!

    1. So true! Those carpet salesmen are tricky.

      When we were in morocco our driver started calling the only single girl in our group "my little visa". He'd run after her and be like, careful on the rocks, my little visa! My visa is hungry, we must stop now!

      Yeah pretty sure she wasn't thrilled