Syrian Souq-rat

I have become a market rat. Some of my favorite experiences, and where I undoubtedly learn the most, have come when I camp out in a local street market for a few hours. I love watching shop-owners hound passers-by, and trying to anticipate how different strategies will work. When things are slow, I usually strike up a conversation with the shop-owners. I have a whole slew of questions I throw at them:  their take on the psychology of bargaining, how they choose their first words, stories about their greatest rip-offs, whether they ever lie about the quality of their merchandise, which nationalities are the most difficult to deal with, what their business ambitions are, how much schooling they have, etc.

I had a particularly interesting experience this afternoon and learned a great deal from men named Sumir and Abrahim. My interactions with these fellows began yesterday. I was walking through one of the main bazaar streets in Old Damascus, very close to the landmark Umayyad mosque. I had just finished lunch and was in a pleasant mood, but I NEVER purchase things on impulse. All over the world, I am constantly barked at by shop-owners looking for a score — they have nothing to lose by trying to catch the attention of someone who was otherwise going to pass by. By the very definition of this process, most of these initial attention grabbers lack originality and don’t even garner more than a hand raise. Yesterday, as I passed-by, Abrahim asked me: “what are you looking for?” I responded: “nothing.” I don’t  normally respond to an opener such as that, but Abrahim’s perfect English and huge smile prompted me to not disrespect him without acknowledgement. He instantly responded: “So you are a simple man of nothing? Where are you from?” I liked his first sentence, so I stopped. He followed up his question by asking me out of genuine curiosity: “where are your travels taking you?” I told him: “I am a man of nothing who is everywhere!” After a big laugh, he told me to return to him if I had any questions about Damascus or Syria.

I was in the area this afternoon and my appetite was picking-up, so I returned to his store and asked him for a lunch recommendation. I told him I wanted something cheap, authentic and nutritious. It is astonishing how difficult it normally is to communicate that. However, Abrahim understood and recommended a perfect place and dish. I had another “foul” variant: chickpeas and roasted chestnuts in olive oil and tahini sauce with fresh herbs, tomatoes and olives on top, pickled vegetables on the side, and two large pieces of flat bread that were a hybrid of pita and the spongy variant you get with Ethiopian food. I went back to Abrahim’s place to thank him for the recommendation and he invited me to sit down with him and a couple other shop-owners. I eagerly accepted and didn’t feel any pressure to even browse his store. I was hooked when he offered me tea, and served me a glass when he got a round for his coterie.

After a few minutes, I got up and started to browse his store. It had admittedly excellent textiles, and I am always on the market for scarves. He didn’t abuse me and let me browse. I found a scarf I liked and asked him the price. It was a cotton scarf very similar to one I bought at Uniqlo in Beijing for $10. His initial offer was $4. I had something to compare his price to and knew he was being reasonable. I ended up spending an hour in the store, really digging into details and I learned an immense amount about the textiles industry, and obviously the Syrian one in particular. At this point, I felt obliged to make a purchase, legitimately believed I was getting a good deal, and appreciated the merchandise. I ended up paying $20 for three scarves (one is extremely nice and made of silk an cotton, or so I am told!)

I sat back down with Abrahim’s crew and felt like I had gained the right to ask tough questions and to receive honest answers — I had purchased enough scarves for one day! As an aside, all of these guys are self taught and speak many languages. They are very intelligent and entrepenreurial men who are surrounded by tourists all day, giving themselves the perfect opportunity to hone their skills and language abilities.

I don’t want to give away all of my secrets, and this internet cafe is about to close, so I will summarize my observations of making a sale in a street market into a couple VERY SIMPLE and OBVIOUS rules:

1. The first component is getting the consumer’s attention. You have to do something original and rely on your instincts. Different people merit different openers. You cannot appear desperate or threatening. Ideally, it should be something tangential to your goals. If you see a tourist taking a photo, ask if you can take one of them. Ask a caucasian passer-by if they speak Arabic. If they look lost or confused, ask if you can help them.

2. You must make the consumer feel like they got a great deal and negotiated beyond their normal means. There is a lot of feel to this, and your opening price is critical. You learn much from experience. According to a few of the Syrian shop-owners, the Spanish are unrealistic and always cut the price to a tenth — but they will eventually purchase. The Dutch are stiff and won’t end up purchasing. Flatter the French. Students don’t know how to bargain but don’t have much money. You must use your experiences and instincts to set your opening price. However, once that is done successfully, lavish the customer with praise, but not in an overbearing or obvious way. As you get closer to striking a deal, change your facial expression to one of defeat.

3. The third rule is not as obvious and should not be underestimated. You must give the customer an enjoyable shopping experience. Depending how much time each of you have, give them interesting information about the product — a story they can take home with them. People want to appear interesting when a stranger praises their accessory and they are able to rattle off the story of how they acquired it. Even though the stranger almost never cares, and this very rarely happens — the possibility is there and your ego has been stroked. With scarves, show them a few different ways to tie them — ideally, ways they didn’t previously know. If they are deliberating, change the subject and take their mind off the purchase. Guilt trip them through your friendliness into making a purchase.

Internet cafe is closing. I might update this in the future.

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