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Bargaining and haggling in Indonesia – the when, where, and how

Many Westerners find the idea of public bargaining for goods and services uncomfortable, even a little distasteful. Unlike the societies of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, it’s just not in our DNA … the sad reality is that we have been culturally deprived.

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WHEN IT COMES TO BARGAIN hunting, we Westerners may take a wander through a shopping mall and keep an eye on the TV advertising (or our letterbox junk mail) for specials.

Or, increasingly, we will go online to check prices on Amazon, E-bay and others of the ever proliferating legions of online sellers. Or maybe we will scour social media market places for the best prices.

Or perhaps we save up for a splurge on the Black Friday or Boxing Day sales.

When we eventually reach for our cashcard to buy, we usually pay the price set by the seller without question. At best we meekly inquire as to whether there might be a discount.

If this rings true for you then you need to rethink when you visit to Indonesia. Here, you are EXPECTED to haggle. If you don’t you will be considered naive, foolish, dumb, and maybe a little weird – perhaps anti-social.

For many Indonesians, bargaining – referred to as tawar menawar – is a way of life and getting a fair or a cheaper price is regarded as a routine challenge.

Older couple walking into street market

You may feel daunted and overwhelmed the first time you walk into an Indonesian market – so much color, so much stuff on sale, so many vendors, languages you don’t understand and the anxious expectation that you will need to haggle over prices … Don’t worry – think of it as your first day at school. You will be a veteran market shopper in no time, and you will probably be loving it – Pic yourlifechoices.com.au.

It is NOT appropriate to bargain over prices in every situation or for all goods and services in Indonesia.

You need to understand the rules of the game – the where, when, and how of bargaining so that you don’t offend, don’t pay too much or too little, and you have fun.

If you are unaware and don’t follow the unspoken bargaining guidelines you will find the haggling to be time consuming, frustrating, and disappointing – both for you and for the vendors. 

Where it usually is not appropriate to haggle in Indonesia

It generally is NOT appropriate to bargain in supermarkets, department stores and specialty shops where prices are clearly marked.

Likewise, you should not try to haggle with taxis where a meter is installed (and operating), though you may ask for a fixed price or an hourly rate if you are engaging the taxi for a tour or a long trip.

And you may need to remind the driver to turn on the meter.

Where there is no meter then you should settle on a price before you engage the taxi (except at airports or seaports where prices are usually fixed and displayed at a taxi booking stand).

It also is inappropriate to try to bargain in restaurants, food courts or with street food vendors – they will usually have a ‘blackboard’ or printed menu showing their prices.

Where and when you SHOULD haggle in Indonesia

You will be expected to bargain in markets, at some roadside stalls, in shops selling arts and crafts, souvenir outlets, and at the many lower-grade malls crammed with bazaar-style vendors.

These malls and the markets are a great place to buy inexpensive gifts to take home for family and friends.

You also certainly should bargain when buying electronics equipment like cell phones, laptops and tablets, digital cameras, drones, and digital accessories. The malls in every major town and city will have areas jam-packed with sellers of these products.

Marked or asking prices are usually keen, but the competition is fierce, and many vendors will expect to give a discount. Similarly, in electrical stores selling bigger items like TVs and whitegoods.

Some will stick to their marked prices, but others will offer a discount if you inquire as to their ‘best price’.

Floor of kiosks selling phones in mall

Floors of kiosks selling phones and accessories are part of every Indonesian shopping mall Pic indoindians.com

Remember it also is OK to ask for discounts for walk-in accommodation (as opposed to pre-booked). Hotel and guest house rack rates are notoriously higher than the prices at which most rooms are sold.

Check out the deals being offered by the property on the Internet (Booking.com, Expedia, Traveloka, Asia Rooms etc). If you are quoted a higher rate at the hotel desk, then tell the booking clerk (calmly and politely) that you expect the best rate as advertised on the Net and are prepared to go outside and order a room via a booking app if necessary.

Point out this will give you the lower price, but also will mean they will receive even less because they will have to pay a commission.

You usually will not have to go to these lengths. Most establishments will agree to a discount for walk-ins, especially if you are staying for multiple nights or arrive late in the day or evening.

Alternatively, they may offer a bonus such as a free breakfast or other benefit. But you may have to speak to a supervisor – desk clerks sometimes have limited authority.

This video from beginner hagglers Victor and Grace may provide some insights into a first bargaining expedition i8n Bali and the satisfaction you can feel after muddling through.

Some basic rules to follow when haggling in Indonesia

      First some basic, commonsense, principles –

  • Remember always that the purpose of bargaining or haggling is NOT necessarily to get the LOWEST price but to agree a FAIR PRICE with both parties happy. Ask yourself whether it is worth the time and effort to try to squeeze another 50c or $1 which probably means much more to a small-scale local seller than to you. The aim should be a win-win – ridiculously low offers may be taken as an insult. (Remind yourself that a whopping Rp10,000 is the equivalent less than AUD$1).
  • Always approach your bargaining with respect and a sense of humor. The odds are that you will get a better result. The markets in countries like Indonesia are the beating heart of the community and are typically abuzz with good-natured laughter, haggling and gossip. Relax and get into the spirit of the place. Don’t make stupid offers, make impolite comments, or get too serious. It’s a process – not a competition for the World Cup.
  • It helps if you can speak some Indonesian, but don’t be too worried if you can’t. Many vendors will have some English. If not then expect them to produce a calculator to show their prices and allow you to punch in your counter offers – numbers are universal, and it works a treat.
  • If unsure whether bargaining is appropriate, then try the softer approach of asking for a discount. But make the question assumptive‘Berapa diskon Pak/Ibu’ (How much discount sir/madam – NOT a lame ‘ada diskon’ – Is there a discount).
  • It is fine to inquire about prices, but don’t start bargaining unless you have a genuine intention or interest in buying. This is just wasting the vendor’s time and yours, and it makes you look like an ignoramus or a Smart Alec.
  • Remember there usually are ‘no returns’ and no after sales service for items purchased off market stalls or bazaar traders.

 

Dress right, present sensibly, and know your price limits

Market sellers will often base their asking price on their perception of the customer’s ability to pay. That means Western foreigners, who often are perceived to be both ‘rich’ and lacking street snarts, often will be asked to pay more.

Don’t send wrong signals by ostentatiously wearing expensive items, and don’t carry or flaunt large amounts of cash.

Try to get some idea in advance of the going rate for items of interest. Perhaps by asking an Indonesian friend, or by browsing shops where prices are marked, checking the Internet, or by checking out asking prices at competing market stalls. 

This will guide you in deciding what you should be prepared to pay for items you want.

You may be offered a “special price” because you are the ‘first’ or ‘last’ customer of the day. This is often largely baloney, but it signals the seller is ready, willing, and able to bargain, and it’s a good reason to be at the markets early.

Some sellers actually ARE superstitiously anxious to get their day underway.

This video by the La Ferpection language videos team talks of the advantages of being early. Not sure the advice is so important, but the video is FUN. (Give youself a smile break – watch it).

The process of successful haggling in Indonesia from go to whoa

To begin your bargaining, first ask the price. Then ask ‘Boleh nego, ya’ (can negotiate/ bargain, yes). If the response is ‘Boleh’ (may), ‘Bisa’ (can) or “Mungkin” (maybe), then make your offer.

Start at about 30% to 50% of the asking price and work up from there until you reach an agreed price somewhere in the middle. Avoid looking too eager or intense, relax, joke where you can, and smile, often. If buying more than one item, then you can expect a better price.

If you believe the vendor’s price is still too high then say “maaf, tak bisa” (Sorry, cannot) and walk away. The seller may come or call after you and offer a lower price or accept your last offer.

If not, it indicates your offer was too far below the price at which the vendor could afford to sell without making a loss.

But if your last offer before you walked is belatedly accepted, then you are duty bound to buy. In fact, any time you bargain, and your offer is accepted, then bargaining etiquette requires that you are obliged to complete the purchase. It’s churlish to do otherwise.

NEVER bargain for sport or to show off. I am an Aussie and have sometimes seen Australian visitors attempting to impress their mates by screwing poor Indonesian sellers down to ridiculous prices.

Then sometimes even walking away laughing without even completing the purchase.

This is loathsome – and rather than looking clever, in the eyes of local people these characters are seen as ignorant and cruel.

Remember most market traders are poor people battling to make a living for themselves and their families in a country where government social support services are minimal.

It is hard to stress too much the need for patience and good humor when bargaining – avoid taking yourself too seriously and enjoy.

There will be times when you pay too much, but plenty of others where you manage to snatch a great bargain. And remember that whatever you pay will almost always be way cheaper than the cost of a similar item at home.

If you feel that the haggling is not fun or is just too uncomfortable or confusing, then shop in the fixed price outlets. The prices may not be as cheap as in the markets, but they will still be bargains compared to home.

Always take your camera – people and color make great pictures

The markets or bazaars are crowded, colorful and busy so remember to take your camera. They are great places for people watching with opportunities for wonderful photos.

Both sellers and customers usually will be happy to pose for you. Often vendors or their staff will ask for a picture with you. The Living in Indonesia website offers an excellent tip for when this happens:

Take the picture and then Either ask their smartphone number (they will punch it into your phone if necessary). Immediately send them a digital copy of the photo.

Even better go make prints at a cheap photo printing outlet nearby and later drop them back at the stallholders. You will have friends, and keen prices, for life (or at least the duration of your visit).

Words and phrases to know for better haggling in Indonesian markets

It helps enormously if you can learn a few of the basic phrases used in the markets. Here are some useful bargaining phrases (all to be delivered with appropriately melodramatic tones and gestures). Perhaps you can copy them and print them out for reference as needed.

Wah, Mahal sekali –  Wow, very expensive                       

Tapi, saya miskin sekali Pak/Ibu – But, I am very poor Sir/Madam

Saya tidak punya uang cukup – I don’t have enough money

Istri/suami saya akan membunuhkan saya – My spouse will kill me

Bisa lebih murah, ya – Can be cheaper, yes?

Bisa Kurung, ya – can lower, yes?

Apakah ini harga terbaik Pak/Ibu? – Is this best price, Sir/Madam?

Bisa bagi perbedaannya? – Can split the difference?

Tak Bisa, Pak/Ibu – Cannot Sir/Madam

Maaf (pron Mah-arf) – Sorry

Terima kasih  (most important words of all) – Thank You

A short personal involuntary haggling story – maybe with a moral

I have long adopted ‘The prize goes to the persistent’ as a personal motto.

Many years ago, I passed a sad young lad selling a marionette puppet doll on the sidewalk in Mexico City. It looked cute, and I must have hesitated and caught his eye for the briefest moment as I walked by.

The lad was quick to announce a price and I was equally quick to indicate I was not interested (and I wasn’t) and stride ahead.

But the lad followed me, periodically calling out price reductions. I tried to ignore him.

But I began to think – the doll did look kind of good. And this young kid must truly need this sale.

Cute Mexican marionette dolls

Cute Mexican marionette dolls from incazteca,com. But I only bought ONE – a little like the guy in the middle with the cowboy hat.

By this time, we have covered more than two blocks and price was at about 20% of the original ask.

Finally, I turned, reached into my pocket, and bought the doll. The young lad smiled.

That’s persistence.

I took the doll home to Virginia as a gift for my then 11-year-old daughter. She loved it and treasured it for years afterwards.

Maybe somewhere there is  a moral somewhere in all of this?

THE BIG PICTURE

Enjoy your shopping, enjoy your bargaining, and always remember to SMILE.

You may lose some of your haggling jousts. But you will win more, and you will have fun and make some otherwise unlikely friends.

If you are an old Asia hand you will already know the advice and tips offered above. But, if you are new read  through a couple of times and put the ideas into action.

Don’t be shy – you will be surprised at how easy the process becomes. And how pleased you will feel when you add up your savings.

Always remember that most market vendors in places like Indonesia are good people simply trying to make a living.

If you err, do so on the side of generosity. And always show RESPECT.

If shopping is your thing (only occasionally of course), then you might also find useful informationin this article:

The malls and markets of Jakarta and Indonesia – heaven for shopaholics

And after you have done with tyour shopping and feel like relaxing, you might find this article useful:

In Indonesia you can be deliciously pampered for ridiculously little

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