Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Karen talks shopping

Remember the earlier entry Laurie did about visiting a shop that was owned by the brother of another shopkeeper and was business partners with the son of another shopkeeper we also visited?

Well, what she didn't mention was the nearly two hours we spent in the shop bargaining. This was AFTER the hour or so we spent actually deciding on the things we were going to buy. It was pretty amazing to see this side of her -- and moreover, how naturally she fell into it!

I'm sure most of you know that bargaining is a time-honored (as in thousands of years) tradition in the Middle East. It is an expected part of the marketplace experience. And most of you also know that Americans are notoriously bad at bargaining in these environments. We tend to do one of two things: first, we feel guilty that we're so wealthy compared to these guys and only cover one round or so of bargaining before agreeing to a price, knowing that we would still be paying more in our own country for the same merchandise. Or, we bargain badly, by whining, complaining, denouncing the quality of the stock, or insulting the shopkeeper. By the end of the transaction, we still end up paying more, and worse, we've confirmed the Ugly American stereotype.

Laurie does neither of these. We start to gather items together. The shopkeeper follows her, giving a running commentary on quality, quantity, and history of every item she looks at. Laurie listens patiently, and then announces "no, I'm not going to pay that price." He argues, she smiles, and replaces the item. He picks it up, offering a lower price. Laurie shakes her head, attention turned elsewhere. This leaves the shopkeeper in a dilemma - does he continue to offer a lower price on the original item, or follow her to the new location and begin discussing the merits of that item?

Periodically, he turns his attention to me. I'm obviously the easier target -- me with my midwestern face and carrying a purse. I smile, and tell him that I don't buy anything without Laurie. He grimaces and says "your friend -- she's tough. Nice, but tough."

And you know, Laurie IS nice. She is firm in her refusals, and equally firm in her determination about what she is not willing to pay. She never denounces the quality, but if she questions quality, she does so by asking the shopkeeper if he has something "similar, but nicer." She is praised for her keen eye.

Finally, Laurie has compiled a pile of items, and we are only actively looking at one or two other things. At this point, we are offered beverages -- tea, coffee, coca-cola. We accept. Because now, the serious bargaining begins. This is where Laurie shines. Me, I would have assumed we already did the bargaining part -- where each item has been identified as being of interest, and a price put to it. But not Laurie.

"What price are you offering for all of this?" she says, pointing her hand to our pile of jewelry, blankets, purses, Roman coins, and the like. The shopkeeper offers a price, plus reduced shipping to the U.S. Laurie shakes her head and says "too much." She moves one item out of the pile. The shopkeeper immediately returns the item to the pile, and suggests another price. "No, still too much. I think I can do without this," she says, pushing the item out of the pile again. The shopkeeper argues with her. How can she leave his shop without such a beautiful piece? One of a kind! Unique! Hand-crafted! Found only in remote locations of the Negev, brought in on camels. "It's not to my taste," she says. Now, the price is reduced on that item, by about 30%.

But still, Laurie persists. "How much NOW for all of this?" she asks. The shopkeeper goes through the list again, reminding her where he has offered earlier discounts, suggesting that he has been terribly kind in the new 30% discount, and then offering perhaps, free shipping of all items to the U.S.

We are now about 1/2 the way through our beverages, and I am intrigued by the body language around me. There are four of us in the shop, Laurie and me, the shopkeeper, and an assistant. The assistant is quietly putting things back in order, periodically catching my eye to hold something he thinks may be of interest. Mostly jewelry, "for beautiful lady." I smile and say I rarely wear jewelry, and have already chosen pieces for my friends and family. He shrugs, smiling, and returns to his task. The shopkeeper bargaining with Laurie is communicating his agony, how we are dragging his blood out by the fingernails. But I also see how relaxed he is, how happy. I know of course that some of this is because he knows we will buy something, and businesses in the Old City are hurting badly from the lack of tourists. He knows this, of course, because our body language is also relaxed. Neither of us look like we're about to bolt out of the shop, give up on this difficult bargaining challenge, and leave in an angry huff. So the shopkeeper can relax. We will buy.

But I suspect he also is relaxed because he has found a worthy shopper in Laurie. She is focused, committed to leaving with the best possible deal. He understands this, and he is giving us the full benefit of his travails. We are an appreciative audience.

By this time, the coca-colas have been empty for 30 minutes. Evening shoppers are ducking their heads in. They see us, hear American accents, and feel safe -- if WE shop here, it must be a place that is safe. But I feel sorry for them. If they buy, they will not have Laurie with them. They will miss out on a significant part of the shopping experience here.

We leave with what would have been another full suitcase of items, but we're getting them shipped, free of charge, instead. And I think we also leave a shopkeeper who must struggle with a dearth of business, punctuated with bouts of poor bargainers. I hope that his evening with us gives him a smile through these dark and economically difficult times in the Old City, just inside Jaffa Gate, at the Petra Shop.

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