A guide to successful bargaining in Istanbul


Pazarlik – bargaining (or haggling, for you followers of Brian) – is a skill, a social activity, and a decent tool to help you get a great deal on anything from carpets to cardamom.  We don’t see much of it in the west, and as a result we can be poorly prepared to handle the tradesmen when we venture beyond our frontiers.

However, bargaining needn’t be a chore or a tribulation.  If you follow some basic tips and principles of etiquette, bargaining in Istanbul can be as pleasantly an authentic experience as listening to the morning Ezan (Adhan) ring out from the mouth of the muezzin, or as puffing on a shisha in a traditional bar in the city’s old centre.

Bargaining in the Istanbul market

Bargaining in the Istanbul market (1)

Here’s an intro to bargaining in Istanbul, which can be most thoroughly enjoyed in the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı) and Egyptian Bazaar (Misir Carsisi), but is also useful in many of the city’s shops.  Happy bargain-hunting.

It’s worth doing a bit of research before you enter into something.  You might know what you’re aiming to purchase before you even leave your own country (Thailand is popular for suits, the subcontinent for pashminas, and Istanbul for carpets).  In that case, do a bit of research at home.  If you want garments, perhaps look into what constitutes good stitching; if you want leather, do you know good tanning from bad?  This way you’ll be able to show that you know what you’re talking about and your requests for a bargain will carry more weight.

When you get to the bazaar, you may well find quite a variety of prices for essentially the same product, so do a bit of ‘pricing up’ and, if you can, get an idea of how much the locals tend to pay and also what other tourists might be paying.

Browsing the Old Town market

Browsing the Old Town market (2)

A touch of etiquette before you open your mouth.  It’s not a good idea to start bargaining for goods you don’t have much intention of buying.  If you manage to agree on a price, you are obliged to buy the item in question.  Reaching an agreement and walking away is bad form, so be prepared to put your money where your mouth is.

The best initiation of bargaining is to ask the merchant to name a price.  You can be fairly confident that this figure will be 50–70% more than they are expecting to sell it for.  This is just a starting point.

A social custom

A social custom (3)

Advice varies as to where your counter-offer should fall; this could be between 30% and 50% of the original figure.  However, bear in mind that if your counter-offer is far too low you might look like a novice in terms of the goods concerned or the bargaining process itself.  This outcome is best avoided where possible.

Be prepared for this exchange to take as long as it takes.  It’s not a process to be rushed.  Shopping is more of a social experience over here.  You’ll probably find yourself on the receiving end of a hot drink, maybe some snacks, or perhaps even a meal.  The merchant is likely to undo over half of his shop display in order to engage you as thoroughly as possible.  A word of advice, though – don’t feel bad for putting the merchant out or wasting their time: this is an integral part of their trade and it is accepted as such.  Anyone who tries to use this to pressure you into accepting a sale is not to be trusted.

Inside the market

Inside the market (4)

As you make your way to some kind of financial convergence, you may want to employ one or both of these tactics:

  • Your friend can play the ‘bad cop’ who wants to keep moving, is worried about your budget, or who has seen or purchased the same item for much less further down the road.
  • Show the shopkeeper your money, for the chance that they’d be tempted to take the hard cash that is in front of them.  This is also useful for demonstrating that “this is all I have…” – of course, if you’re going to pull this trick, you’ll need to carry small denominations.
  • As with most transactions, you have more chance of a discount if you buy in bulk.  Most definitely play this card if you’re buying more than one item.
  • If the price isn’t going down much further, this could be the time to walk away.  The merchant might offer you a last ditch price.  Now is the time to accept, if you’re willing.  This technique is also good to practice towards the end of the day, when the price might fall in return for the sale.
Tough negotiations

Tough negotiations (5)

Keep some perspective.  The price of the goods here is already relatively cheap.  A Turkish Lira currently sits at just under 50 Euro cents, just under 50 USD cents, and around 36 UK pence.  Are you haggling over the price of a Mars Bar?

A ‘successful’ purchase is determined more by the item’s worth to you than whatever price someone else might put on it.

Tea and snacks in the market

Tea and snacks in the market (6)

If you’re leaving your purchase behind in Istanbul to be shipped, on your own head be it.  There are organisations that complete this service reliably and efficiently, but there are also those that take advantage of the situation.  Do you homework on this process and be aware of the risks.  You don’t want to be the eventual recipient of a cheaper imitation of what you paid for, or of a report stating that your purchase has been ‘lost in transit’.

Hopefully you’ll have a decent time putting this theory into practice throughout the shopping areas of Aksaray (for cheaper goods) and Taksim (for higher quality goods).  Besides the famous bazaars, there are also many shops behind Istanbul’s university that sell old coins and second hand goods.

A bustling atmosphere

A bustling atmosphere (7)

Just before we shut up shop, however, here are a few tips to add a bit of extra value:

As with many popular shopping areas, Istanbul has its share of pestering merchants that wander the streets.  Try to avoid getting sucked into a friendly conversation that quickly turns into a 30-minute sales pitch.  You’ll need to be polite yet firm.

Think twice before you buy ‘designer’ perfume on the street.  Can you test the actual bottle you’re buying?

It is illegal to sell or buy (and especially to export) antiquities from Turkey.  Older than antiques – more than one or two centuries old – antiquities include items such as coins, statues and sculptures, ceramics and carpets.  A real antiquity will often be priced so high that you won’t buy it unless you’re a bona fide treasure hunter.  You don’t need to worry so much about carpets – the vast majority aren’t made in Turkey and are certainly less than 100 years old.  So the chances are you won’t be buying a real antiquity anyway – but then the customs officials aren’t necessarily going to be experts either, and it’s better to have them on your side than on your inside.


Carpets (8)

A lot of Turkey’s treasures were removed from the country during the 19th century and are now held in museums across Europe, America and elsewhere.  Turkey has managed to recover some of these treasures and of course doesn’t want to be deprived of any more.  You’re not Indiana Jones: you’re a very naughty boy.

Thanks to the following:
(1) http://www.flickr.com/photos/jason_weemin/
(2) http://www.flickr.com/photos/smallscreen/
(3) http://www.flickr.com/photos/lugarshz/
(4) http://www.flickr.com/photos/a-m-a-n-d-a/
(5) http://www.flickr.com/photos/guillermofdez/
(6) http://www.flickr.com/photos/chanc/
(7) http://www.flickr.com/photos/saf1/
(8) http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinpresta/

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About Michael

Arrogance, hostility, parsimony, rapacity, impatience; the five humours of the Englishman abroad are my most positive features and also my guide and solace through tribulations. I delight in coffee, cheese, and the music of Ray Charles, and you can catch me trying to form a queue anywhere from Centraal Station to Hoofddorpplein.

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