Scott needed the hat, desperately. “Desperately” was our first mistake.
We’d been wandering, lost, in the souks of Marrakesh for more than two hours, every wrong turn leading to another. Despite dutiful sunscreen use, Scott was getting burned. We spotted an acceptable-looking straw fedora, stepped into the shade of a shop and began to haggle.
“How much?” Scott asked the shopkeeper in French.
“Three thousand dirham,” the shopkeeper replied — the equivalent of about $360. Even though he knew that it was all part of the game, Scott flinched. As we’d rehearsed, I began to point wordlessly at all the hat’s flaws — spots where the brim seemed uneven, or where a straw poked loose — while he and the shopkeeper went back and forth: 100 dirham, 1,000 dirham, 120, 500. Finally, they shook hands on 160 dirham, about $20.
It was our first time haggling for anything, and we walked out of the souk feeling pretty proud of ourselves. Scott had talked the guy down by 2,840 dirham, after all.
It was a few more minutes before we realized that we were idiots.
That $20 hat was definitely worth no more than $10. It didn’t appear to be handmade. And yeah, the brim was a bit uneven. We spent the rest of the day trying to rationalize our poor mental math by talking ourselves into the purchase, as anyone with buyer’s remorse would.
“A hat like that would probably cost the same at an H&M,” I said, as if that were any consolation. The justifications got weaker and weaker: “At least it covers your head,” I offered at one point.
Of course, we knew better. Before I tagged along with Scott, my fiance, on a business trip to Paris and we skipped south for five days of vacation in Morocco, we’d spent time planning our itinerary and dutifully educating ourselves on the customs of the country’s markets, especially the Jemaa El-Fna, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the commercial center of Marrakesh’s old city. We knew that we’d have to haggle for everything — and that if we did it well, we had a chance of getting incredible bargains on beautiful decor for our new apartment.
But we aren’t very assertive people. So the idea that every transaction would be a confrontation was intimidating, especially because we knew that as foreigners, we’d never have the upper hand. One of Scott’s Moroccan-born friends laid it out for us over dinner in Paris, explaining the four prices you can pay in the Marrakesh souks: one price for American tourists. A slightly lower price for French tourists. A third, lower price for Parisian Moroccans, like our friends. And finally, the lowest price, for locals.
We knew that the latter two weren’t possible for us. But because Scott is fluent in French and knows a little Arabic, we thought that we could try for the second price — as long as I kept my mouth shut, since I don’t speak either language. We devised a routine where I would act as a silent partner, conveying my opinion through a series of carefully choreographed, subtle gestures, which — even though they’d all look like I was disapproving of the purchase, would actually be meant to encourage him. It was like shopping charades.
After our failure with the hat — and a few unpleasant encounters with overly aggressive vendors in the souks — we needed to regroup. The manager of our riad told us about a fixed-price market near the Saadian Tombs that offered a stress-free shopping experience for wimps like us.
A sweaty stroll took us past La Koutoubia and the ancient city gates to the market, which was stacked high with all the same goods you find in the souks — perfumes, carpets, tea services, lanterns and little souvenirs — in a shop with all the ambiance of a Kmart. The staff were the exact opposite of what you’d find in the souks, making themselves scarce behind the fluorescent-lit stacks of rugs or piles of scarves. Smaller, touristy items were on the first floor, while nicer goods were upstairs.
And though it was certainly not the shopping experience one comes to Morocco for, it was great for intel-gathering. We picked out a $75 rug that came with a tag explaining its handmade-in-Morocco provenance — something we couldn’t be sure we were getting in the souks. We bought a few sets of qarkabeb, or Moroccan castanets, for our nieces and nephews, since they cost only about $2 each and it didn’t seem worth the effort to haggle over something so small at the souks.
And then we laid the foundation for all our future transactions by walking around the store, noting the prices for everything else there that we might want, to use as a base line for later negotiations. Hand-painted pottery and decorative tagines, for example, were incredibly cheap — about $6 for a vase or $4 for a small serving platter.
Armed with this new information, we set off for Essaouira, a beach town three hours away by bus. It might have been the cool sea breezes or the laid-back vibe of the windsurfer-filled city, but shopping was easier in Essaouira. Vendors weren’t as aggressive — making accidental eye contact with people in the street wouldn’t result in their grabbing you by the arm, or, as one Jemaa El-Fna incident taught us, placing their trained monkey on your head — so when we encountered a vendor with a spread of teapots and platters, we put up our haggling dukes. Figuring that Scott’s language skills weren’t helping us get low prices, we employed a new strategy: accept a higher price only if the vendor would throw in a second item.
And that’s how we walked away with an ornate teapot and a sugar pot thrown in to sweeten the deal — though we later realized that in our enthusiasm, we’d overlooked its bent leg. But it was all for the equivalent of about $25 and, bolstered by our victory, we moved on to pottery. A large black-and-white bowl, hand-painted in Fez with the lettering of an Arabic poem about honeybees and the sweetness of life, was our next buy, and for $20 we got the seller to throw in a decorative jar with the same pattern, as well as a hand-painted tile.
We were on a roll. Perhaps too much of one. We got cocky.
Back in Marrakesh, Scott and I set our sights on the metal lanterns that we’d seen all over both cities, figuring that they’d be the ideal bargain purchase: They were hand-painted but seemed mass-produced, and since they were easy to find, we could always go to another seller. Based on what we’d seen shopping around, we thought that a small-size one would be worth about $8. At a lantern shop near the Saadian Tombs, an old shopkeeper offered his first price, which, as for nearly every item we haggled for, was 3,000 dirham.
Scott laughed, a bit too confidently. He pointed to an unfinished edge and demonstrated how difficult it was to open the lantern door. The shopkeeper brought out another lantern, and Scott found flaws with that one, too. Continuing my mute routine, I pointed to a necklace, in case we could get a two-for-one deal. The shopkeeper put it around my neck, and Scott named his price.
Since every shopkeeper’s initial offer tended to be about 30 times the value of the item, Scott figured that he could lowball it and offer about a third of the price he intended to pay, assuming that he’d get talked up to the item’s actual value. It didn’t work. Apparently only the shopkeepers can get away with naming outrageous prices — a fact we learned quickly, as the shopkeeper began screaming that we’d insulted him and his family, pushing us out of his store. We scrambled away down the street and didn’t try for another lantern. Our suitcases were full enough.
Did we pay a fair price for any of our travel souvenirs? Definitely not. The pressure of haggling, combined with the mental math of the exchange rate (8.2 dirham to the dollar while we were there), is the perfect combination for getting ripped off. The sensory overload of being in the bustling souk can prevent shoppers from being the rational actors that they plan to be, no matter how much they’ve prepped beforehand. And some would argue — and we wouldn’t disagree — that as tourists from a wealthier country, we deserved to pay a higher price.
But after five days of shopping in Morocco, we realized that there’s no such thing as a fair price. Maybe it’s just our psychological susceptibility to what’s called choice-supportive bias, where you attribute positive qualities to a purchase to justify the money you spent, as I did with Scott’s hat. Or maybe it’s just pride.
But when we look at our souvenirs and they bring us right back to our memories — of the scrubdown we got in the hammam, of galloping down the beach on a camel, of fragrant tagine dinners on rooftops as we listened to the call to prayer — we know that the price was right.