Liz Biscevic—Moral Compass
Before I went to Mexico for the first time, my friend from Mexico City told me to never buy anything at the listed price. While he said that market vendors offered the best and most authentic crafts and keepsakes, he also claimed that they commonly mark up their goods by 100 percent or more, expecting most shoppers to bargain for a better deal. Earlier this year, while out shopping at a street fair in Mexico City, I saw firsthand what my friend was talking about: Both locals and foreigners unabashedly angled for some sort of “discount” from sellers.
I enjoy the high of snagging a good deal as much as the next person, but during my trip to Mexico, a peso was the equivalent of a U.S. nickel, and even with some merchants’ inflated prices, things like jewelry, handicrafts, and other souvenirs were still considerably cheaper than what I’d pay in the U.S. Given that economic reality, I started to wonder if there was a higher price being paid for this kind of haggling. After all, when it came down to it, asking a vendor to take 10 pesos off his asking price translated to a 50-cent discount. I lose quarters to my laundry machine almost weekly. So, while it’s a given that Mexicans will haggle to their hearts’ content, should I follow suit in order to fit in and not get ripped off? Or should I accept the listed price knowing my quarters would mean more to the vendor than they would to me?
A 2014 study by the nonprofit WIEGO revealed that street vendors strengthen their communities not only by providing the main source of income for their households, but also by creating jobs both for themselves and for government-sanctioned positions—like security guards and transport operators. Selling in this way also allows parents to work flexible hours around their children’s schedules, and provides a way to make a living despite a lack of education or experience.
You could credibly view bargaining with these vendors as a more authentic way to support local economies, even as you talk their sale prices down. It may feel more comfortable to shop at a chain store—where you’ll most likely pay that inflated rate without the opportunity to negotiate—but visiting vendors and small shops that offer the same products feels like a more direct way to give back to a community. Especially in Mexico, where these vendors sell everything from fresh vegetables and crafts to haircuts and electronics, buying in this way allows your travel dollars to directly support those living in the region you’re visiting.
But think hard about what saving a few pesos means to you. In 2005, the average income for a salesperson in Mexico was 3,326 pesos per month, $306. If you were to account for inflation, while I was there in 2016, the average income would be around 4,087 pesos per month, or $219. What I’m saying is that even though scoring a great deal makes tourists from wealthier countries feel good, those few dollars (or pocket change, depending on what you’re asking for) could help the vendor put food on the table in a measurable way.
In Mexico City, the owner of a ceramics shop a few blocks from the Catedral Metropolitana told me that what he brings home for his family to eat each evening is directly related to his sales for the day. While his prices need to stay competitive with other local vendors selling similar wares, it’s also vital that he turn a profit on every transaction. I asked him what he spent on an elaborate painted bracelet listed for 100 pesos, and he told me it cost him 50 pesos. He hoped to sell it for 90, but expected 70 pesos. And that markup was relatively modest. At the Teotihuacan pyramids, crawling with tourists, those same-style bracelets were being sold for 300 pesos.
For most vendors, tourism can help their bottom line just by increasing the foot traffic to their store or market stall—but to say they’re reliant on foreign travelers as a primary source of income doesn’t seem accurate, at least it didn’t when I visited. More often than not, I was surrounded by local or visiting Mexicans as I explored markets and shopped. I was fascinated by how quickly the price negotiations took place. In only a sentence or two, merchants and consumers could either agree on a number or decide to move on, and both salespeople and customers seemed to know the fair price for any given food or object. Given that locals do their shopping in these stores and markets too, one could argue that not haggling could do more harm than good by driving up prices and forcing locals to pay more than they would have otherwise. Still, I had a hard time bringing myself to talk a child hawking a silver-plated bracelet down from the $6 he was asking.
While bargaining made me uncomfortable, what disturbed me more was the thought that by not engaging in this timeworn practice, I’d unwittingly be upending local economies. In areas where secure jobs are in short supply, the allure of easy tourist money can quickly erode culture and jeopardize locals’ safety.
By the end of my trip I had struck a balance. Though I definitely didn’t want to take advantage of my host country’s residents, I made my peace with the fact that bargaining is a way of life in many cultures. What I finally settled on in Mexico was aiming to pay about 20 percent less than the listed price. That allowed me to bargain a bit without haggling for the sake of haggling.
Remember, there’s a fine line between getting a good deal and being cheap jerk.