Many locations around the world bill themselves as a “shopper’s paradise” but in India, it’s definitely true. However – as with many things in India – you do have to know the ins and outs to really get the most out of it.
Over the last few years India has opened up its retail sector dramatically, and in most cities, malls abound. New ones are opening up every day – glitzy, air-conditioned, and full of shops selling exactly the same brands you can find in London, New York or Hong Kong. They’re likely of limited interest to the average tourist unless you want some air conditioning or to see a movie, since the best urban cinemas are often inside malls.
But for the visitor looking for a bit of Indian authenticity, there are far better, more traditional and much more interesting ways of finding that perfect holiday memento or handicraft.
Wherever you go in India, there will likely be an open-air market (often called a bazaar) nearby which will sell an astonishing variety of things, from food to knock-offs, from export rejects to second-hand dentures (I wish I was kidding). These are fun places to trawl, usually because you have no idea what you will find nor what you will end up buying (not the dentures, please). Export rejects are always great bargains, but they are rejects for a reason. Check that Armani T-shirt which costs next to nothing very carefully – there is a reason it’s for sale in a street market. If you can live with the flaw or the tiny hole, buy it and enjoy it.
If you’re a power-shopper, the first stop on your list should always be the local government-run emporium. They’re often pretty dull places with a distinctly slow-paced feel to them, but they have fixed prices and will give you a very good idea of how much things should cost and the range of prices available. If you’re in Delhi, the place to start your shopping research is the multi-storey government owned Central Cottages Industries shop on Janpath. It showcases the traditional products of just about every state in the country, and will give you a good basis from which to start shopping.
But once you’re out in the wild, there will be shops galore selling any amount of handicrafts. In these places bargaining is almost always acceptable, and this is where you need to be on your toes.
Haggling is an art-form in itself, but a rough rule of thumb is to offer half of what the vendor initially suggests, and take it from there. Before you start, decide what you’re prepared to pay for an item, and use that as your rough maximum.
When the seller lowers his price a wee bit, you can increase your offer a wee bit, too. Don’t tell the seller what your ideal price is, don't flash your money around, and be aware that he is a consummate professional.
At some point in the bargaining process, one of two things will happen. The vendor will refuse to budge, and then it is your call. Is his price what you are prepared to pay? If so, enjoy your purchase. If you think it’s too much, you can walk away. If you’re called back, then there is still clearly room to maneuver. If the vendor lets you go, you have probably reached his bottom price.
Never, ever be rude when you bargain - it serves no purpose whatsoever and smiling works much better. If you enter into the haggling ritual in the right frame of mind, you will end up with what you want at roughly what you wanted to pay, and will probably get a cup of chai or a cold drink thrown in for free. Haggling should not be considered a stand-off; it’s a friendly dance, a price-based pirouette around a bag of numbers, only one of which will be agreed upon. However, a word of caution:
Despite what they may say, 99% of the time, the rickshaw-wala/guide/taxi-wala will not have a brother-in-law who happens to own a handicraft shop. By all means go along with them to the shops they suggest, just as long as you realize that commissions are being paid to lure you inside where you will (they hope) buy something.
Do not be naïve, and never think you have to buy something to pacify your guide or taxi driver. You can if you want, but you don’t have to.
So, rules to live by when shopping in India?
Decide your own price. Always.
Follow your heart sometimes. Buy a statue or a shawl or a bracelet because you fell in love and simply must have it? Definitely.