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 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.