Mumbai Outside In: A British Girl’s Guide To Bargaining In The Mean Mumbai Streets

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Colaba causeway: photo by Sharell Cook
Colaba causeway: photo by Sharell Cook

What to do when you have spent your entire life shopping at fixed prices?

I had only bargained for prices twice in my life before arriving in Mumbai (one occasion in a Tunisian handbag shop will not be mentioned here, still too painful). The first time was at the travel agent, when I negotiated £90 GBP (10,000 Rs) discount on a holiday, the conversation went like this;

TA: so that is the holiday details, are you happy with that?

Me: is there any chance of a further discount?

TA: let me see what I can do… *types furiously on laptop, probably nothing to do with my holiday, maybe updating his facebook status*… how about this price

Me: that’s great thank you

And that was it. So clearly you can see I have missed out on the years of training that could have equipped me for the mean, hustling streets of Bombay. Over the last year of my life in Mumbai various methods have been tried to varying degrees of success.

I have attempted the lone ranger:

Shopping alone is usually not a good idea for me, far too much attention, far too many people shouting at me; “miss”, “maam”, “hello miss”, “what do you want”, “hello”. My fair face causes even the most laid back of vendors to jump to their feet, in the expectation of getting some easy money from me.  Shopping alone usually causes me to get flustered and red faced and end up either running scared or buying something overpriced just to get me out as soon as possible. (Tips for the lone ranger, very important, are at the end of the article.)

I have shopped with friends:

Shopping with a Mumbaikar friend acts as a great buffer between you and the seller, everyone just seems to be a lot calmer. I love having a friend around distract me from all the shouting  and they know what prices are reasonable. I still need to get into the bargaining too, because if I smile sweetly and make my friend do all the hard work then they end up coming into some abuse; “why are you taking away my profit”.

I have also attempted the covert operation:

The covert operation is shopping with a Mumbaiker friend when we pretend not to know each other. I casually browse the goods, decide what I want, and then either mumble out of the corner of my mouth as we cross paths or develop some complex code language/sign language to ensure they know what I want. My friend then sweeps in and buys the goods for me. Or, more simply, I ring and tell them once I’m out of ear shot. This can be a lot of fun and makes you feel like you are a secret agent, but could also be rather too much effort.

I’ve tried the Good Cop Bad Cop:

I find it so much easier to shop with a friend even if we are both foreigners. Moving in a pack always  gives you confidence. The GCBC approach works because there is one of you that wants the item, and your judgment gets clouded and you end up paying more then you should. Here is where the bad cop comes in, they keep telling the good cop that it is “too much” and they would “get it cheaper down the road”, they come in with some stupid prices and it helps get us to a price we are all happy with.

So for any other visitors that will be doing some shopping in Mumbai, especially those attempting the lone ranger, and, of course, especially non-Indians, here are some tips:

Be clear of your final price in your head

  • Ask friends what it should cost before hand – I have annoyed many of my Mumbaiker friends by asking them how much they paid for that necklace, those earrings, those shoes, but it has given me a good bank of data to base my price ides on.
  • If you are a tourist and have no friends in Mumbai then ask a couple of people round the corner, I have found most Mumbaikers want other people to get a fair price.
  • Check out any shops with price signs nearby. It is always best to go for a wander around the area, some places have signs with “all tops rs 100” “all shirts rs 250” so you know other shops should be giving you a similar price.
  • Know what price you are happy with. I hate being ripped off, but ultimately what matters is that you bought something at a price you are happy with. So have a look, assess the quality, say to yourself the maximum you would be happy with, and DO NOT go above it.

Don’t be afraid to shop around

Some vendors, when they see I am a foreigner, start at the most ridiculous price, so that even paying half that price would be way too much – just move on and buy from someone that does not start at such a ridiculous amount.

Don’t start bargaining on what you think is a reasonable price, start lower.

OK, this point may sound totally obvious to any Indian, but to some it needs to be said. A short dialogue where you come at them honestly first time with what you’re prepared to pay does not work here. Start lower.

Hope these come in handy the next time you go shopping!

Post By Guest Writer, Ellen Lee (5 Posts)

A student in India, an outsider looking in on Mumbai. Can be found exploring the city and observing its inhabitants. Loves shopping, dancing and tea.

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Guest Writer, Ellen Lee

Guest Writer, Ellen Lee
A student in India, an outsider looking in on Mumbai. Can be found exploring the city and observing its inhabitants. Loves shopping, dancing and tea.