Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Shopping in India is a frame of mind

Many overseas visitors to India are taken aback at the kind of street shopping experience they have.

The touristy parts of the country - Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan - are full of pushy vendors trying to sell them things at downright outrageous prices.

I met an American lady recently who said to me, "Deepa, I feel so much at a loss...I'm the outsider, and I feel like I have to constantly watch out so I'm not cheated."

I thought about what she said - and here's my advice: If you're visiting India, and someone quotes you a silly price at the market, my recommendation is - Just smile and say no.

The thing is, if you look prosperous, vendors will always quote you a higher price. That applies even to Indian buyers. Sometimes when someone quotes me a totally wacky price, I just grin widely and say the Hindi equivalent of "Yeah right, go pull the other one". Then we haggle back and forth a bit, and when the price gets to the point where I think he's making a good margin, then I give in.

It's all part of the game.

To treat this overcharging-bargaining game as a personal insult, or worse, to think of yourself as a victim because this doesn't happen in your country, is just totally missing the point. You have to apply a different yardstick when you are in a totally different land. You have to tell yourself that this is how India's shopping culture works. No one is singling you out for extra-harassment...this is just a bunch of fairly poor people trying to get a few extra dollars off anyone who looks like they can afford it. In my MBA school they had a term for it - it was called "what the market will bear" pricing!

India is a both a destination and a journey. It has woven its magic for millenia now, on travellers from all parts of the world. It is a complex and rich culture, with so much to offer - but the rules are different.

To explore this sort of complexity, you have to step out from the comfort zone of neatly labelled racks and polite checkout greeters. You have to embrace the street shopping and bargaining spirit. It can be fun, actually. There's the crafty assessment of what something is really worth, the starting position, the bantering conversation and the give-and-take, the testing of each other's mettle, and the final agreement on how one particular shawl fits into the overall cosmic scene of things!

Travel wouldn't be half as interesting if the world was one big Walmart, right?


Dianne Sharma-Winter said...

I love this post! Everything you say about shopping in India being a frame of mind is true and you are also right about we foriegners taking this kind of 'what the market will bear" price. Shopping in India requires a sense of humor and more importantly its an interactive sport. (One I think Indian women would win Olympic Gold for btw)

Anonymous said...

so so so true !!

Anonymous said...

Great post! Shopping in India is definitely a sport. India is Disneyland for shoppers. I look forward to more on my next trip.

Anonymous said...

Very good understanding of the situation. Deepa tells it like it is!