How to Bargain Prices Like a Thai
Part of the excitement for many coming to Thailand is that you get to try your hand at bargaining prices for things that you would always just have to accept a fixed price for back home. While for some visitors this can be exhilarating, for others, having to bargain for prices can become a tedious activity every time you want to make a purchase, and in certain circumstances failing to bargain means that you're just going to end up paying an inflated price for everything which isn't a lot of fun. Sending the wrong 'bargaining signals' just once, could mark you as an 'easy target' for other vendors who will prey on anyone from whom they think they can make a quick buck.
In this article, you'll learn how, and even more importantly, when to bargain to ensure that not only do you not get ripped off, but also that you respect all parties by helping them maintain 'face' during your stay in Thailand.
What Prices Can and Cannot be Bargained?
First things first - there are certain things and places in Thailand where bargaining is just not an option. There are other places where bargaining is expected - and then there are certain 'grey areas' where bargaining might not be expected, but to do so won't be offensive and might let you walk away with a great deal that otherwise wouldn't have been there.
Where You Should Not Bargain
As a golden rule in Thailand, understand that in general conflict is to be avoided, and wherever possible you should behave in a way that helps people to save face. If you put people in a position where you're forcing them to do something that is just not possible, out of the scope of their authority, or would cause them to sacrifice a relationship with someone who is important for their existence, it's not going to end nicely.
When speaking about vendors and people doing business in Thailand, the people they consider 'important for their existence' include bosses, family members, partners, and even suppliers. Why would someone push hard with their supplier to discount a product for you - a stranger - if it means risking the relationship with that supplier upon whom their business depends? Not only that, why make an effort for you - a stranger - only to make less profit?
Given these basic rules, places where you shouldn't bargain will include (but aren't limited to):
- Department stores like Central, Emporium and Siam Paragon;
- Convenience stores like 7-11, Family Mart and Lawson;
- Anywhere with official 'fixed prices' like AOT airport transfer limousines, restaurants with menus and prices displayed, government agencies - visas, and even motorcycle taxis who usually have a price-chart set up at the 'win' or motorbike stand, albeit in Thai;
- Street food vendors usually have fixed prices for their standard dishes / drinks that are not negotiable
You will get a feel for where official prices are. One thing to note on the 'restaurants with menus' thing is that sadly it is common, especially in touristy places across Thailand, to find dual pricing models being used either officially or unofficially. There are some restaurants that might even have an English menu - usually with pictures and inflated prices for tourists, where the Thai menus usually have more variety and cheaper prices for the same food - or even entirely different food for locals. If you're looking at spending any serious time in Thailand, that in itself is a great incentive to learn to read the Thai script.
Where You Can or Should Bargain
Places where bargaining is expected include anywhere where there is not an official price, and where prices wouldn't be set by a central body (like the head office of a department store or convenience store chain, etc.). That means that most street vendors selling their wares can be negotiated with.
Other things that can be negotiated include rent and accommodation rates if you're dealing with the owner of the property. Note that if you're negotiating for the price of a condominium, even the cost of electricity might have an inflated markup which could be negotiated.
Where Bargaining is Optional
There are certain places that you as a visitor will encounter, where the ability to bargain a price might not be apparent. Such places are where the line is blurred between the 'market' atmosphere and ‘official store’ atmosphere, such as shopping centres like Terminal 21 in the Asok area, or Platinum Clothes Mall in the Pratunam district. Most of the stores in these places, with the exception of major brands, might be up to bargaining prices with you, especially if you're going to buy more than one of any item.
In fact, at Platinum, you will often hear two prices being quoted when locals ask for a price. The shopkeeper may say an initial 'rakha' or 'price', and then say the 'rakha song' which is the 'wholesale price', usually meaning the price per item if buying three or more of that item. Once you hear the 'rakha song', you get a good idea of what the markup on that item is and you might even try to negotiate yourself a better deal.
Give Me Your Best Price
One thing that baffles many locals is hearing a tourist say “give me your best price”. Why would they? "Ohh, you want my best price, not a shoddy one? Oh in that case then …". Asking for such a price is futile. If you ask this in a touristy area, they will know you are a tourist and there's no way you'd get the 'best price'. If you ask this in a non-touristy area, trying to hit them extra hard on price might reveal your ignorance of what prices should be and could even cause offence to the vendor if you are pushing them for a price that is just out of the question.
The best way to get the best price is to learn how to count in Thai and then walk around the place that you are looking to buy something from and just listen to the prices that the locals are paying for. Then, either go back to that store later on and offer them the same, or go to another store that has the same or similar goods and offer them the same. Unlike some other countries where bargaining can be brutal, in Thailand, Thais still bargain with each other with respect and won't usually mark something up more than about 15%. If that's the case, if you have an idea of what the wholesale price is, to respect the vendor offer them a price that will allow them to still make about a 10% margin on their goods. This way, you get a great price and they get to stay in business for another day. If someone offers you an obscenely over-priced 'deal', it's better to just walk away rather than initiate a discourse that could finish badly for all.