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April 10, 2006

Playing Berber or chump in the souks of Marrakech

I love Marrakech! I have been here for a few days, for an EO educational event, and it has been close to perfect. The people, the food, and the weather are all great. Moroccan mint tea, served here at every occasion, will soon be served at every occasion in my home, too.

The souks were incredible. These covered markets, which snake through endless narrow passageways, were filled with meat and produce and lamps and rugs and clothes and spices and all the other necessities of life.

Many stalls offered the same products. Identical Moroccan tea pots, wooden boxes, and cheap daggers were available every few meters, all sourced from some central factory-for-the-production-of-tourist-goods.

What was different, though, from the bazaars in so many other places I’ve visited was the amount of hand production happening right in the shop. In many stalls, just two or three meters square, craftsmen were cutting fabric and sewing, stamping intricate patterns onto metal boxes, and building beautiful furniture. I saw a vendor staining glass for Moroccan lamps while his neighbor hand-bent sheet metal into ductwork. I saw a teenaged boy hand carving twin bed frames (stacked six high) in a shop just large enough to hold them.

Larger scale operations, like dying wool in big cauldrons, were just around the corner and down the quieter alleys. Donkey-drawn carts provide just-in-time inventory control for the tiny factories, moving raw materials and finished goods in and out.

For fresh poultry, you can’t beat having the butcher in arms-reach of both the live chickens (in cages on the wall behind him) and the customers (across the chopping board in front of him).

Haggling is a way of life in the souks, and I gave it my best effort. I escaped a rug merchant without buying, despite the mint tea and full court press. I think I paid more than I could have for an unusual tea pot, but (by walking away) I got an antique wall hanging down from $1,200 to $100. I too was told that I trade like a Berber.

Well, I think it was an antique. Maybe they faked the weathering. Maybe I am not like a Berber. Maybe I am like a chump.

I am happy with what I paid for everything I bought. I would pay those prices at home for those items, and a quick search of the Internet doesn’t show any better price on comparable items. But the process made me suspicious. What if my good friend across the table, who closed our deal with an elaborate hand-shaking, heart-touching ritual, isn’t just a good salesperson? What if he’s a good liar?

I know it’s the culture. I know it’s a sport. But haggling wore me out. It took forever, and whatever extra margin the salesman may have squeezed from me, he was the loser in the end. Because he had no clue how much stuff I liked in his large shop.

Once I saw that he would not quote a price for anything (“we’ll put it on the table and discuss one price for everything when you are done shopping”) I refrained from expressing interest in any large item. I might have bought that large lamp or mirror (or carpet!), and been willing to ship it home, but I had no idea of the true value and no easy way to discover it. If the tea pot goes for 50% of starting price, and the wall hanging for 8%, how do I find out if I can even afford a lamp or mirror or carpet? I can live with paying 10, 20, or even 50% too much on something small, but I won’t risk it on something big.

A business speaker I once heard said that even in the US everything is negotiable. It may be true, but I am glad that I don’t have to spend half an hour bargaining for everything I buy. I like my souvenirs, and the stories I now have to go with them. But the best transaction of my day was the no hassle, no haggle, ice-cold, fixed-price Diet Coke I bought for sixty cents.

(Should I have paid 40 cents?)

Posted by Bob Pritchett at April 10, 2006 05:00 AM

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