The Bargain

By Richard Seah

These past few days, several friends have shared a video about a rich man bargaining with a poor coconut seller by the roadside. I finally watched it and it reminded me of this little story that I wrote many years when I was running a HiFi business.

The Bargain

This was in Bali, nearly 20 years ago. Then, durians were expensive in Singapore and not as commonly available as they are today.

My wife and I were therefore, excited about our durian find. We were eager to taste the Indonesian version of this much-desired fruit, especially since we knew we could buy it real cheap.

The durian seller was obviously poor. Very poor. Her clothes were torn and dirty. She had a baby in her arms, another young child beside her. If not for the small pile of fruit beside her, she could have passed off as a beggar.

Cheap though it might be, we did not like to be overcharged. As first-time visitors to Bali, we had been forewarned about how the locals would try to rip off tourists, we were given guidelines on the art of bargaining.

“Start off at about one-quarter the price they quote you,” a friend advised.

So we did. The durian lady wanted 1,500 rupiahs for a fruit. We offered her 400. She reduced her price to 1,300, then 1,200, 1,100,1,000… We increased our offer by smaller margins, to 500, then 600.

Then we reached a deadlock. She asked for 800, we refused to budge at 700.

“Please,” she pleaded.

“No,” we rejected.

This went on for about 20 minutes until I suddenly realised: we were bargaining over the equivalent of about 10 cents Singapore currency.

That realisation filled me with shame! It had not occurred to us earlier because this was our first visit to Indonesia, the first time we dealt with rupiahs. We were not used to currency counted in thousands and millions.

We were used, however, to bargaining. It had always been standard practice. Automatic.

Travellers’ Tales

Bargaining does serve useful purposes. It ensures that we get the best possible deal for ourselves. It prevents us from looking and feeling stupid should we discover later that someone else was able to buy the same item at a lower price.

Bargaining abroad further gives us interesting travellers’ tales to tell. We can brag about our successes in reducing the price of souvenir items by 80 percent, we can tell our friends about how unscrupulous those souvenir peddlars are.

That durian incident in Bali showed me, however, that bargaining could also blind me – to the obvious poverty of that lady. I was concerned only about my own interests, blind to the fact that there are less fortunate people than I who could do with some compassion.

The incident completely changed my attitude towards bargaining. I still do it sometimes, in the sense that I sometimes ask for discounts. But I never push too hard. Especially now that I am doing my own business, I know exactly how it feels to be at the other end of the bargain.

Sometimes, I feel annoyed when customers bargain purely out of habit, as when they ask for a discount even before they consider whether or not they want to buy. They would walk into my shop and, before even looking at anything, ask: “Any discounts?”

Sometimes, I feel wrongly accused as when customers bargain because they assume I had inflated my prices to try and rip them off when in fact I had priced my products very reasonably.

And sometimes, I feel bullied. Yes, bargaining is a form of bullying. The rich do this when they boast about their great buying power and then threaten to exercise this power elsewhere unless you give a big discount. The not-so-rich do this when they point out how bad the economy is and then ask you to choose between giving a big discount or not making any sale.

No one tries to bully those that are more powerful. And so no one ever bargains with department stores and large corporations, only with small shops. No one bargains with doctors or lawyers – except large corporate clients.

The Reverse Bargain

I like to end off with another bargaining story.

Once, I liked a teapot that I saw in a Chinatown store.

“Twelve dollars,” the store owner said.

“Ten,” I offered.

“Okay,” he agreed.

Then I felt bad, seeing that his shop was quiet and thinking he could not possibly earn that much selling a teapot. I offered to pay $12. But he also felt bad and insisted that I pay $10. We ended up “bargaining” in reverse until I finally relented.

A few days later, I saw exactly the same teapot in a big department store.

The price? $9.

This was first published as a facebook note by Richard Seah and reproduced with permission