City City Bang Bang, Columns

The pleasures of bargaining

Growing up, going shopping with older female relatives was always a nightmare. They took inordinately long, visiting at least a dozen shops before even thinking about buying something. They seemed most interested in the least important things- hair clips being particular favourites. They fussed about things that were exceedingly trivial- choosing the colour of a bathroom mug could take them a good twenty minutes, till another aunt would remember that the first shop they had gone to had greater variety (it didn’t). But by far what was the worst thing about being dragged along to these expeditions, was the bargaining that followed once some object had finally been identified as being worthy of purchase. The brazenness of their negotiations was deeply embarrassing; an asking price of Rs 60 would be countered with an offer of 15.

One yearned for fixed prices, for then there was no responsibility to even attempt to bargain. The worst feeling was to be put in a situation where bargaining was clearly called for, and one was not up to the task. At best, one managed with a weak counter, which more often than not, seeing the haplessness of their prey, the seller rejected, and one capitulated having at least made a token attempt. Going to big stores, where bargaining was a no-no, was thus a great relief, but that rarely happened.

Wisdom about the meaning of bargaining came strangely in one of my travels. It was in Bali, I think that while trying to buy some improbably coloured garment, that a price was quoted, and finding it unattractive, one tried to move on. The lady who was selling, called me back, and with great cheerfulness, asked me not to just give up, but to bargain. There was something so innocent about the transparent manner in which it was acknowledged that this was all a game and that one had an invitation to play. It happens in India too, but usually, by way of the vendor asking what price is one willing to pay, which then serves as a starting point to begin negotiations. But an open invitation to bargain has a disarming quality, for it pre-empts the adversarial nature of the negotiation. It underlined the fact that there was a reason why some of us liked bargaining- for it was not only an exercise in penny-pinching but one that met deeper needs.

Bargaining makes price human. It rescues relationships from transactions. It encloses the buyer and seller in a pact. The price arrived at, becomes a junction, a meeting point. Both sides reveal a little bit about themselves, how much something is wanted and what value one is willing to place on it. Price becomes a value. The object bought gets located in the real world, one that teems with needs and constraints. Without the ritual, the act of buying becomes mere consumption. The money saved is important but it is the interaction that coverts something cold into something warm.

Discounts are bargains too, and there is no question that causes delight, particularly when they are unexpected. Objects jump in value and become suddenly that much more accessible. But that being said, discounts do not replace the joy of bargaining, for they are little more than bribes for buying. The question is also one of control; discounts keep control squarely on the seller’s side. One is an appreciative recipient of the other side’s generosity, but no longer an equal. Of course, now with virtually every shop sporting a discount sign the whole year round, the pleasure in getting a discount has been severely undercut. It is now merely an entitlement and any discount that uses the word ‘up to’ is largely disregarded.

Price otherwise is the unwelcome sign on the door, a sign designed to keep us away, or at the very least tell us that we are not really welcome unless we can afford to buy what we are looking at. There are shops we don’t enter because we fear what the price tags inside might be. We stand outside these shops and strain our eyes and bend in strange poses to catch a glimpse of the price tag on the product so that we don’t embarrass ourselves by going in, looking around awkwardly, feebly examining some merchandise, before pretending that nothing here meets our fancy, and quickly walking out. The ability to bargain frees us from the diffidence of our own presumed inadequacies. The price can no longer judge us, for the evaluation works in both directions in an overt way.

Bargaining needs people on both sides to be in control of their decisions. Price becomes a mutually arrived at destination between two people. When we move into the more formal world of consumption, the relationship between individual buyers and selling organisations cannot accommodate this fluidity. Things are what they seem, and one either accepts that or one move on. Traditional markets, teem with people exchanging energy; modern outlets are galleries of frozen objects.

While bargaining itself belongs to a world that we are rapidly leaving behind, the idea of haggling is very much a part of our everyday lives, as anyone with children can readily testify. Every day is fraught with intricate negotiation, with much give-and-take, parry-and-thrust, calculated brinksmanship, and the use of various kinds of blackmail, all melding together effortlessly. No negotiation is harder fought, and more rigorously argued.

Good deals make both sides happy.  They preclude the notions of victory and defeat. Agreements that are arrived at through a process of working through each other’s perspective have an inbuilt mechanism that creates satisfaction with the outcomes. In an increasingly fractious world, where we agree on fewer and fewer issues, agreeing on a negotiation is a sign that interests of a vastly different kind can converge. As long we engage with a desire to converge, we can bargain our way through it. The problem arises, as it days nowadays, when the intention itself is lacking.

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