New Worlds: Bargaining Chips

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

In talking about marketplaces and wandering vendors and shops, we’ve left out one key aspect of how those types of commerce get carried out — an aspect which rarely shows up in (Anglophone) fiction, and when it does, it’s usually depicted very badly.

So let’s talk about bargaining.

Modern western society features very little of this. When you go to buy something, it has a price tag, and you pay that price. Sometimes things will be discounted because they’re damaged or have served as the floor model, or they’ll go on sale temporarily or clearance permanently . . . but when all is said and done, the price quoted to you is still fixed. Your options are 1) pay up or 2) don’t buy it.

Even when the price of something is negotiable, the power to change it is largely in the hands of the seller. I recently made arrangements for a bit of home renovation where we’d previously signed a deal promising a 25% discount on future work; because the covid pandemic had driven up the cost of materials in the interim, the salesman bumped that discount to 30%. Very nice of him, but not something I have any real control over. My options are 1) pay up or 2) don’t get the renovation done.

In a modern capitalist society, we (theoretically) address this through competition: if I don’t like the price Company A is demanding, then I can comparison-shop with Companies B, C, and D. This of course presumes there is actual competition, which all too often there isn’t — witness the many areas where there’s only one internet service provider, and no matter how crappy the service they provide, your only choices are 1) pay up or 2) go without. But in a sense, those companies are (theoretically) bargaining against each other, bidding low to attract more customers, or holding out at a higher point because the quality they offer is worth it.

That’s very different from the kind of bargaining that used to be standard procedure in the West, and still is in other parts of the world — meaning the type of bargaining where the buyer and seller haggle with each other over the price of the item in hand.

When this shows up in fiction, it usually goes like this: Character Q is selling, and asks for a hundred of whatever monetary unit they’re using. Character R is buying and offers fifty. Q drops their price to ninety, R counters with sixty, then eighty vs. seventy, and in the end, they settle on seventy-five.

The End.

The final result always seems to be exactly halfway between the starting offer and the starting counter, and nobody uses any tactic other than naming a different number. It leaves you wondering why they bother — why they don’t just say, “look, we both know where this will end up, so let’s skip the intervening steps.”

Let me give a counter-example: my husband’s watch broke while we were on vacation, but the next place we went had a booth selling “GENUINE FAKE WATCHES.” (We gave them points for brazen honesty.) The guy quoted my husband — I’ll call him K — twenty euros for a “Rolex,” so K immediately wrote this off as a waste of time and started to walk away. The seller instantly hacked the price down to ten, putting it within a range K was willing to consider . . . but then when K pulled out a credit card to pay, the seller insisted that price had been for cash, and bumped it back to twelve for our mode of payment.

Bargaining isn’t just about throwing symmetrically increasing or decreasing numbers at one another. It’s about leveraging different factors to raise or lower the proposed price. One of those factors is buyer interest; being legitimately willing to walk away from the deal is a strong lever to make the other person come closer to your number. Another is method of payment: back when we discussed coinage in Year One, I mentioned the scene in Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver where much of the bargaining hinges on the differing values of shillings minted at different times. Nowadays it’s quite common for the cash price and the credit card price to be different . . . especially since cash makes it easier for the vendor to keep the sale off the books, and thus to avoid paying taxes on it.

There’s also the quality of the thing itself. As I mentioned above, sometimes you can get a discount on a fixed-price item if it has flaws or damage. In full bargaining, the seller will extol the merits of their merchandise — fine materials, fine craftsmanship, durability, fashionability, and more. The buyer counters with reasons for reluctance: soon it will be out of fashion, they have another that’s nearly as good, the materials and craftsmanship show themselves to be not so fine in certain spots, and so forth. Partly this is about the item in hand, and partly it’s about showing yourself to be a savvy customer who understands what you’re looking at, rather than a rube who can be distracted by a flashy exterior and some fast talk.

Which brings us around to the question of the people involved. On a different trip, when my husband and I were in India, one of his Indian co-workers left us waiting while he went and bought coconuts from a roadside stand. The reason? The co-worker got three for a total price that was less than half of what the vendor had tried to charge K for a single coconut. Outsiders get a surcharge that locals don’t, especially when (as with a pair of white Americans in India) those outsiders are known to be from a more affluent society. This can run along ethnic lines, or religious ones, or national ones — even at the minor scale of “from this village” vs. “from the next village over.” Anybody who gouges their neighbors for as much as possible will soon get a reputation for being a money-grubbing skinflint, with predictable social consequences. But strangers? Those are fair game.

So a real bargaining scene can bring all of these factors and more into play. The vendor sees a traveler and adds half as much again to her usual starting price of 100. He demonstrates knowledge of the product, though, and tries to drag her down to 50. She doesn’t trust his foreign money, so her asking price drops only to 110. He counters with 70 — but along with that, he offers to buy two instead of just one. She laments that it will be difficult for her to make more, supplies being so dear these days, and they eventually settle on a total of 160 for two, or 80 apiece. Along the way, the reader learns much more about the characters and the world they live in, and they get to enjoy a battle of wits and manipulation: much more interesting than simply flinging numbers at one another until they reach the average of the two starting figures.

And when the handshake has happened and the money has been handed over . . . there may still be a bit of story to come. That watch my husband bought?

It broke before the end of the day.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Bargaining Chips — 15 Comments

  1. Yes, haggling is very dependent on so many things… Where I live, if you’re buying a lot, you expect a discount. So parents buying shoes will often wait until all their kids need new shoes, so as to get a bigger sale and thus a bigger discount. Same for more expensive products – if a seller offers you two pairs of glasses, and one is more expensive, you’d ask for a bigger discount – and often the seller will agree, because they might have been told by the manager that the company wants more of the expensive kind sold, no matter the actual price. Where you come from is a factor – a friend once went to the neighboring town and saw that the person before her paid less, and when she asked why, she was told there was a local’s discount. Another time, she was ‘racially profiled’, as it were – the seller said ‘the previous buyer has 4 children and is North African (perceived as a disadvantaged background), wheres you’re American and probably have one kid and a dog’ (upon informing him she had 8 kids, he immediately apologized and offered her the same discount).

    • The shoes thing reminded me of getting my pictures developed after the last trip I took with a film camera. It was my first trip to Japan, so naturally everything was new and interesting, and also my trip coincided with cherry blossom season, so I took what at the time seemed like a truly absurd number of photos: fourteen rolls in five days. Turned out the local film store had a discount where if you were developing at least $100 worth of film, they gave you ten percent off, twenty percent for $200 . . . by getting a friend to give me their, like, three rolls of film from their own trip, I managed to crank that all the way over the line for a thirty percent discount. O_O

      (It’s eye-opening to compare that with what happens now that I have a digital camera. I have something like 342 photos from that first Japan trip; years later, in Highgate Cemetery, I took over 350 pictures in the space of an afternoon.)

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Bargaining Chips - Swan Tower

  3. The last line reminds me of

    Vaagen had explained it to Cordelia. “What do you call four big bravos with clubs in a dark alley?”
    “What?”
    “A Vor lord’s malpractice suit.”

  4. One place where haggling does exist in the U.S. is buying houses.

    And it is a place where it is hard to prove when someone has different prices depending upon what race the buyer is.

    • I thought about that one, yeah, but my experience is possibly warped because we bought our house in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our “bargaining” was more like businesses competing against each other: the seller had an asking price, we offered at that price and so did someone else; we both raised our offers, and my family got the house. Not quite the same thing as us bidding low and negotiating with the seller to bring their price down . . . but maybe in other parts of the world, that actually happens?

      • This is a situation where the type/situation of payment matters too. My husband and I got an acceptance on a house, despite offering a bit less than the other prospective buyer, because we’d already sold our condo and were ready to go, whereas the other buyer had a place still to be sold and their acceptance was on contingency of that sale. The owner took the fast and sure (although a few thousand smaller) sale over the larger possibility that would be slower to close at best, and might fall through.

    • I am given to understand that new and used car sales also often involve haggling.

      Employment contracts, when the employee feels he has bargaining power more than being an interchangeable warm body.

      Presumably inter-business deals often also have haggling-nature, but are outside the experience of most of us.

      • There is definitely negotiation in publishing contracts — not just things like the size of the advance, but royalty rates, which rights are granted for that price, escalators for high sales, reversion clauses, and so forth.

  5. A few years ago I was on my first and only trip to Singapore for a trade show. On my wanders I ended up in Chinatown, in a jumbled stand selling various art stuff. The things in back were out of my price range and anyway there was an embarrassingly rude woman back there, bargaining at the top of her lungs in a strong British accent and “talking to stupid foreigners” pidgin English, but up front I found a bunch of paper cuttings that looked more in my category and also charmed me immediately. I picked out about four and took them to the shopkeeper to ask how much.

    “Fifty dollars.”

    “Okay,” I said. “Do you take credit cards?”

    The shopkeeper stared at me, surprise slowly transforming into an expression of utter disgust. I could tell I’d done something wrong but I had no idea what, so I just stood there, like the clueless dork I was, waving my credit card hopefully in the air, until she finally heaved a sigh of immense exasperation and took it from me.

    “For YOU,” she said, swiping my card and looking profoundly put upon, “thirty dollars.”

    Which taught me, on reflection, that there is also an element of craftsmanship in bargaining which shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s a skill, and like any skilled worker, a good bargainer takes pride in her work and abilities above and beyond the purely financial, and hates to see them wasted.

    Also, I probably shouldn’t be let into Chinatowns without adult supervision….

  6. I hope K got a decent watch between then and now.

    A subset of the local-or-not you touched on…
    Sometimes, it helps to at least be able to speak some of the local language/dialect, even if one is obviously a foreigner. But even that varies from the seller being fine with the only words I know are “ne kedar”(sp){‘how much?’}…to the seller preferring to give the better deals to those who are fluent in the language (even if not fluent in haggling)

  7. The thing about bargaining is that the buyer is investing time in building a relationship (however limited and transient) with the seller. The more time you can spend the larger the discount.