ISTANBUL — BAZAAR
The blog lags a bit behind my actual travels and so I will make this entry not just about Istanbul, but about shopping in general.
I don’t love shopping in particular, but shopping abroad is exotic and exciting. But it can also be overwhelming. I do love textiles and carpets and handicrafts of all sorts. And when I am traveling, it is always fun to go to bazaars and open-air markets and to just look around.
Almost everywhere in Turkey this is possible, but not in Istanbul. Was it always that bad?? I don’t recall. But from my current perspective I have to say this: unless you are a very educated and steadfast consumer, you will be taken for a ride and ripoff in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and anywhere else in the Sultanahmet area. Beware!
I need to see a lot of different pieces, before I can decide what to get. That does not work with many vendors’ mentality, who think that they have to sell something right here and right now. Their experience is based on the fact that many visitors are in a hurry and don’t have time to shop around. Here is how the system works:
First, you will be approached by young guys, who will talk to you about anything: your name, where are you from, do you need help, do you like Turkey? They will often accompany you to your immediate destination, which can be very helpful; or show you some little treasure in the area, which can also be really cool.
One guy pointed me to a little-known cistern, for example. Another one took me to a gorgeous rooftop for an absolutely breathtaking view. You got to love this.
And then, of course, they will invite you to their shop “just for looking”, “not for buying” and for “just having some tea”. And if you have time, this can be fun, too. But, as I said, you have to be steadfast. And most of all, you have to know what you do NOT want, as that makes it easier to resist.
After all this small talk and sight seeing — one guy actually went with me to dinner! I was hungry and I don’t like to eat alone. I told him that I would appreciate being able to ask him a lot of questions about Turkey, if he would come to dinner with me. I have to hand it to him — he did not rack up an expensive bill for me, but had tea, and answered indeed a lot of interesting questions before we proceeded with the program.
These young guys then take you to the store of their uncle, brother, cousin, friend, niece or who knows who and then… the sharks come in. It’s not these young guys who are the problem. They are just the recruiters, and the bait. But if you take the bait, you have to be fully aware that you are on the hook now.
I have had some sales people who respected my statement that am interested in looking and would love to be educated, but have no intentions to buy. But I have also seen impolite, aggressive and unethical sales tactics that taint the entire profession and left a nasty taste in my mouth.
Nowhere else have I encountered this level of harassment but in Istanbul. And just for clarification, all the guys in these pictures are the good guys. :-)
One more thing about sales people in Istanbul: bargaining is part of Turkish culture. In fact, if you want to be precise, from what I have heard (but have not verified), Sharia law allows you to set a price about triple of the actual value and if you and your customer meet in the middle, everyone should come out happy. In some areas you have the bargaining margin closer to 20% above what the seller can rightly expect to get from you.
It is quite common that in Istanbul however, you are quoted prices 10 times higher than the actual value! I had literally an argument with a sales person who went down and down and down to 1/10th of the originally quoted price with a carpet, at which point I stopped with the bargaining, and engaged him in an ethical debate. He did not find this amusing.
So far, I have not been ripped off, as far as I know. What that means to me is that I have paid prices that to me are worth the product. I don’t care so much about the fact that perhaps a local person would have gotten an even better price, but I care about what the piece is worth to me. Often I ask myself: How many hours do I have to work to afford this piece? And then I weigh this against how many hours it took someone to make the piece and how much I love it.
And sometimes, I buy stuff just because the old lady who is selling it really needs the money. And even though the necklace or the doll she is selling is not anything I need, I can always give someone a present.
But I have to admist this: I was muscled into buying stuff that I had absolutely no intention of buying… That was in the early days, when I was completely caught off guard.
Oh well… What’s one more scarf in my closet?