Learning to Bargain

Today's posting is a reprinting of an article published in The Houghton Lake Resorter, a small weekly newspaper from the town I grew up in.  The editor gave me permission to post all the articles published while we lived in Nairobi.  It was published Thursday, February 15, 1990.

Shopping is one of my favorite hobbies.  Even if I don't have money, it is fun to just go downtown, window shop and dream about wearing that outfit at this occasion.  Or, since I've been married, I try to imagine how to work this interesting piece of art into my decor.  But learning to shop in Nairobi has been an experience I will never forget.

Unless a store has a sign displayed prominently stating "fixed prices," store owners expect customers to bargain or at least ask for a discount.  At first I was wary.  It seemed so foreign.  Then a little voice reminded me it was.  I was in Africa.   That helped.  Watching other people heped, too.  Going through the market with vendors calling out, "Madame, something today?  Good prices."  After them telling me the prices of their goods, my normal reaction was to convert shillings to U.S. dollars.  Since the conversion rate is 20 Kenyan shillings to one U.S. dollar, 100 or 200 shillings didn't seem like much - only $5 or $10.

Friends soon informed me, however, that when vendors see "mazungu," (white people), they quickly raise the price by at least 50%.  And since these seasoned vendors can immediately spot a new mazungu in Nairobi you can imagine how high they were raising their prices for me the first few weeks!  I soon learned the best thing to do was to make friends at the market and shop at their stalls regularly.  Once you become a "customer" the prices supposedly are more reasonable.

But then there is Jospot.  Needing some inexpensive furniture until Tom gets a job, we decided to purchase Kenya's famous woven straw chairs.  They are actually quite comfortable and stylish...?  Jospot sells the nicest chairs, so of course, we soon became friends.  He had sold a friend of mine several chairs earlier and I knew what she paid and was determined not to pay even one shilling more.  It was an interesting conversation.

"Ah Jospot, how are you today?"

"Jambo (hello) madame.  Very fine.  Something today?  I give you good prices.  You are my customer."

"I need some chairs, Jospot.  How much?"

"You see these chairs?  I have new designs today.  Very good prices."

"Yes...how much, Jospot?"

"Well," he says he takes out his pen and begins writing on his hand, "they are 350 shillings."  And as I gasp, he quickly adds, "But you are my customer.  I give you good price.  For you only 200."

"No, Jospot, that is too much.  I know you gave them to Leslie for much less."

"Oh yes, you know Leslie.  Well, how about 175?"

"Jospot!  You know that's too much.  I'll give you 150.  That's all." 

"150!  No, you give me 160."

"No, Jospot, 150.  That's all."


"No, 150."

"Okay, madame.  You are my customer.  For you, 150."

Tom and I purchased four chairs and a small "coffee table" for $35 U.S. and went home feeling great.  I was busy in my head planning to make cushions and curtains so we could have a real home.

My excitement ended, however, when I asked a Kenya friend how much she would pay for the chairs.  This was about a month after we had purchased them, and for some reason, the more more I shopped the more suspicious I was that although I was a customer I was getting taken.  My suspicions were confirmed as we talked.  My friend said she had priced some similar chairs and Jospot had told her 100 shillings.  I felt even worse when she said there was no way she would pay even 100, but would take them home for about 80 shillings.  Four dollars!

Now, I realize we are only talking about $3.50 U.S. and that it shouldn't be such a big deal.  But it's the principle.  Customers are supposed to be treated differently than mazungus.  We were supposed to be friends.

Well, I am much more shrewd now.  I comparison shop much more and am quick to tell Jospot I can get the same thing two stalls down for much cheaper.  For example, one day I was pricing hand carved chess sets made of soap stone.  Jospot (who seems to have everything in his shop), told me they sold for 450 shillings, "but you are my customer.  I give it to you for 300."  Okay, I told him, but not today.  Then I went down the line of shops and priced them.  One man started at 200!  Now, who do you think is going to get my business from now on?

Lori ZieglerComment