Lamenting A Dying Culture of Haggling

Supermarkets and the death of the neighborhood's friendly shop.

Lamenting A Dying Culture of Haggling
Photo by Siddhant Ranjan Singh / Unsplash

When Kumar opened his Boeing Saree Store after years of peddling clothes on his cycle, I sort of began liking the word ‘bargaining’. It opened up a whole new world of customer satisfaction. For those who don’t know Kumar, he is a character from R K Narayan’s evergreen Malgudi Days.

Known for his marketing stratagems, involving approaching his potential customers only in the afternoons while the menfolk are away, Kumar would price sarees at a premium and then give the women the satisfaction of having grabbed a steal by reducing the price “only for them” after, needless to say, much haggling, all the while making a killing. The women bargained and won while Kumar got to pocket super-normal profit. Everybody went home happy.

When I was in school, the teachers used to invariably cry over the ruckus in classroom, “Is this a fish market?” Growing up in a landlocked state in the heart of India, I had scant chance of actually witnessing a fish market, but I assumed it had definitely something to do with all the shouting. My chance came in the form of visit back home in Kerala where I got an opportunity to get a first-hand knowledge of a fully-functional fish market. While the vendors kept shouting at the top of their lungs to catch the eye of prospective customers, the latter exhibited legendary lung capacity to strike a well-bargained deal. The similarity was stark. My teachers could not have been more correct.

When I was young, my mother taught me that bargaining was the essence of shopping, for the satisfaction of having bettered the vendor in haggling only added to the charm of the product. However, on a warning note she said that even as one wore a smug smile of having got something at a considerably lesser price, a strange feeling of yet having been robbed remained. The eternal battle for a better deal was what made the entire shopping experience worthwhile was her mantra.

Another lesson in the basics of haggling came from my neighbour. She once told me that the best way to get the desired price was to show just a casual and passing interest in a product, and the rest would be done by the eager salesman. True enough, when she once took me shopping, the trader after noticing her casual interest began enumerating the benefits of the material and out of nowhere pulled out mouthwatering discount offers he had denied in the first place.

Another nugget on haggling came from the same repository, who let on to me how to show tremendous interest in a product and then chicken out, citing cash crunch. I saw this stratagem work wonders when a salesman in a conspiratorial voice offered the product within her budget even as another woman was haggling with all her might for the same saree. Now, this is experience and knowledge for you. No person can demonstrate such skilled perception of human psychology than a woman hell bent on buying clothes.

I’m not against supermarkets or online stores. I like them just as much as the next man. But my grouse with them is that they don’t give me the chance to display or put to use the empirical wisdom on bargaining passed on to me by wiser generations. Haggling has become more or less redundant in this age of e-shopping, with all major stores proclaiming well in advance that the rate they sell at is the best. Just like an old-timer, I get scared about the future generations losing out on something that made the whole enterprise of shopping wonderful.

The other day, strolling down the aisle of a big supermarket, flipping all and sundry into the trolley with scant regard for price, I laboured up to the cashier. After billing and packing was done, I was foraging my pocket to pay up for the damage when out came of my mouth, “Can’t you reduce the price, you see I’m a regular, cut me some slack.” Even before the scandalised cashier could reply, I realised my folly and scampered out with my bags in tow without even waiting for the change. Old habits die hard.

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