The Anatomy of a Transaction in Marrakech

Trying to make a purchase of any sort in Marrakech is an experience unlike any that I had ever had before. At first I was horribly uncomfortable with the entire thing, but now that I’ve been here for a month and have had to deal with it every single time I step outside the front door of our riad . . . no, no I definitely am still uncomfortable with it.

The Entry

There are a variety of means by which you might come to enter a “shop” (in most cases more of a stall, no more than 5 feet wide by 8 feet deep). There’s the way in which most westerners would imagine coming in to a shop anywhere: something caught your eye. Or perhaps a shop owner entreated you to “please, look in my store! The finest [insert item here] in Marrakech!!” That can get annoying but a quiet “no thanks” or “non, merci” will work if you’re not interested.

What gets to be a hassle are the folks who physically block your way or grab at your kid to try and get you in to the shop. Um . . . no. That’s not going to make me buy your stuff, fella. It wasn’t quite a shop, but a henna artist in the main square (the Jemma el Fna) once walked straight up to Charming, grabbed her arm, and just started drawing on it. Charming asked her to stop (but didn’t struggle, because, you know, dye being applied to your skin) and naturally within 2 minutes it was done and she demanded (DEMANDED) money from us. But my personal favourite is being called “Ali Baba” if it’s been a few days since I’ve shaved (because of the beard) or “Hey! Hey Christian!” because I’m white. Again, keep trying, home skillet.

The king move of all of these however is the “Helpful guide.” Someone who just happens to know exactly where something is that you’re looking for, and on the way he’ll show you a great shop or he’ll tell you how lucky you are to be in Marrakech today because today is the only day of the year where they have a (rug/leather/spice/whatever) auction and it is being held very nearby, it won’t take a minute to stop by and it’s a sight that must be seen! Of course once you get there the auction has only recently ended, but you can still buy some of the rugs/leather items/spices at the best prices you’ll ever find. The fact that the shop is owned by a family member of the guide is of no importance. He leaves you there, and you are effectively abandoned because now you REALLY have no idea where you are in the maze of the Medina.

Spices

The Browsing

Do you like to browse? I like to browse. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point, and I largely thank Charming and her obsession with antiques for it. It used to be that I would only go in stores if I knew what I wanted, I’d buy it, and I’d leave. Now, I can see the point for going in, looking at the stuff, if I see something I’d like I’d keep it (and its price) in mind, and see if I find something I like more later on, and if not come back.

Yeah, you can’t do much of that here.

If you are in a store, you’re buying. If you look at a wooden box, you are asked “Oh, you like wooden boxes? I will make you a great price!” “No, I’m just looking.” “I have many more wooden boxes! Look at this one! Real cedar wood! Smell this! Smell smell!” (you smell because it’s shoved at your face) “See? Real cedar. You like? I make you a great price.” “I’m still just looking.” “OK, not that one. How about this one? Made by Berbers. Inlaid camel bone and silver. Very pretty. Maybe for your wife or mother? So pretty. Good price.” “For the love of god, I’m JUST. LOOKING.

The Purchase

So say that you finally find something you like. Maybe you caved and you kept (for unknown reasons) smelling boxes until you found one which had that perfect “box” smell (is there such a thing as a box smell, he asks hoping this doesn’t turn dirty)? Maybe you are here on your very first day and you didn’t read this helpful post and so didn’t know about the fake rug auctions and have a wife who really likes ugly rugs.

Whatever the situation, you’ve now found yourself with something which you think you might like to take home with you, assuming it’s within your price range. So you ask the shop keeper, “How much?”

Oh dear god.

The first thing you have to understand here is that no matter how good you think you are at bargaining, you are not going to come out of this situation “winning.” The reason? They actually know how much the product is worth. They know where it really came from (no, most of those “real silver” trinkets aren’t realy silver. And don’t get me started on the “antiques”) and how much they paid for it. If you come even CLOSE to approaching their cost they will flat out refuse to go that low. They’re here to make money, and if they can a lot of it. I can respect that, but at the same time I’m still not out to overpay if I don’t have to.

So now that you understand that, you need to fix in your mind how much you really want any particular piece. If you’ve got that type of brain, attach a dollar figure. Then you need to deduct how much of a PITA it is to get it home. Also deduct any exchange rates costs (You ARE dealing in Moroccan dirham here). Generally try to keep a level head. It can be ridiculously easy to get caught up in the back and forth and be thrilled with knocking the other guy lower than his asking price . . . but you’re still paying more than you ever would have. He started off with a ridiculously high price, and while you may have lowballed, I’m guessing not by as much as he highballed.

I can’t give any advice on the actual mechanics of how to bargain. I’m not fond of it and I’m 100% sure that every person I’ve met here has loved the fat white guy who comes into their stores and overpays so much. Charming? She’s pretty great at it though. She plays the “I only have [X amount]. If you won’t accept that, there’s nothing I can do.” She keeps her bills all folded separately in her purse so if she only needs 100Dh, that’s all she has to pull out. Pretty brilliant, but in a pocket that’s not so easy.

medina shop2

The Payment

So you finally reach an accord on how much to pay. This is still one of those cultures that once you reach a deal you’ll look the salesman (yes, always a man. So far in our experience ALWAYS) and you shake his hand firmly and with a smile. You’re now all friends (and even the negotiations should be with smiles on faces. This is business but friendly business).

After this, you pay . . . with CASH. Make sure that whatever number you agreed on you’ve got the cash on you. It’s really considered bad manners to make an agreement and then say you have to go find a cash machine (which are very few and far between, and frequently broken). Very very few people accept credit cards (just a single merchant we’ve dealt with has).

The After

You’ve paid, you’ve received your purchase. Depending on how things have gone, the merchant may have invited you to share tea with him (it really does happen, and if you have the time and no squalling infant, I recommend it. It’s delicious). So now what?

Now you head back to your place of residence. If you’ve been there for a while haggling and you pulled out a wad of cash in public, people saw it. Put it back in your money belt or wherever, take your hard-won items, and put them back in your place of residence (riad, hotel, hostel, etc) if at all possible. Avoid the temptation for whatever pickpockets are scoping you out. Because trust me, they are.

Congratulations! You made it. Now go drink a cool beverage and relax. You’ve got to brave all this again tomorrow!

4 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Transaction in Marrakech

  1. I also did the different bills in different places. My ” line” for bargaining went something like ” yes, I can see the fine quality of the (insert item). But we are only schoolteachers and make very little money.” In several cases I pulled out the amount I was offering and held it in my hand. As they tried to get me to hold the item, I would try to give them the money. That often worked as they could then move on to the next person.

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