Bartering in Bolivia: Get the Best Bargain for Your Buck

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Bartering in Bolivia can actually be an entertaining experience. Bargaining should not have to be intimating or nerve-racking for you. It’s commonplace here, even expected of shoppers, so there’s no need to be shy about it. However, there is a time and place for everything, and price negotiation is no exception.

Shopping and bargaining are even more difficult when you don’t speak the vendor’s language, but even when you do mistakes can happen and you just have to laugh about them and keep them as a fun memory of your trip. I know what it feels like to be unfamiliar about shopping customs in a foreign country:

The second time my family returned to the US when I was 13, I walked into a grocery store, picked up 2 gallons of milk, took it to the cashier, and proceeded to offer him 50 cents less than the marked price. (After all, I was buying two! Why shouldn’t I get a price break!) I was so accustomed to bartering in Bolivia, that I forgot for a moment where I was!

Of course the cashier promptly, and not very nicely, corrected my errant ways and I just died of embarrassment years ago when this happened, but now I can laugh about it and share it with you, as well as the following tips so that you will, hopefully, not suffer the same humiliation.

Bartering in Bolivia: When NOT To Do It

1. You do not usually barter in formal business establishments (and by this I mean supermarkets, brand name stores, import stores, or any other store that has marked prices on each product). These stores are typically part of the formal commerce system. See my page on the Bolivian sales tax for an explanation.

2. You do not usually barter in restaurants, cafés, bars, ice cream parlors, or anywhere else you eat. There is an exception to this: if you plan to reserve a table at a restaurant for a large number of guests (say, more than 10) and you alone will be paying for all of them, you might contact the owner in advance, in private, and arrange for special pricing. (Sort of like when you contract a caterer for an event).

3. Please don’t barter if you are buying from a street vendor who is obviously just barely making a meager living and you are obviously more than wealthy enough to afford what you’re purchasing. See more about this under my Bolivian currency and Bolivian shopping etiquette pages.

4. You do not barter at gas stations. All gas stations in Bolivia offer the same price for gasoline and diesel. The price they may sell at is set by the government. They do not set their own prices and legally can not charge less or more than the national government dictates.

5. You do not barter at bars, discoteques, bowling alleys, movie theaters, museums, arcades, video stores, or any other form of entertainment, doctors or dentists, hospitals or clinics, pharmacies.

6. Never barter with a public employee if your purchase involves your visa, driver’s license or any other legal or travel-related document, even if they offer to do so.

Bartering in Bolivia: When It's OK

Bolivia outdoor markets bartering shopping

1. Do feel free to barter with vendors at open markets. They are used to it. In fact, they expect it of you. They assume foreigners can pay more (even if you really can’t) and most likely, the price they offer you initially is already higher than the norm. Of course, this does not mean they will be willing to lower their price. See my bartering in Bolivia “how-to” list below.

2. You can barter with vendors you buy regularly from such as your tailor, a caterer, or people who are providing you a service on a regular basis.

3. Do barter with taxi drivers (before you get in). If you ask the cost after you get in, you won’t get a discount, and if you wait to haggle the price just as you are being dropped off at your destination, you may get an irate taxi driver.

4. Do barter with vendors who offer to barter first. Many times a vendor will say something like this: “This pair of shoes costs Bs. 100, but if you buy 2 pairs, I’ll give you discount”. They’ve made it clear their prices are negotiable – so even if you only buy one pair, feel free to open up the bargaining process.

5. "Con factura o sin factura?" This is a question frequently asked when you are buying in a store that is part of the formal commerce system. This means the store is registered, has a Tax I.D. number, charges sales taxes and issues you a receipt or invoice. The store must pay the Bolivian sales tax they charged you, to the government. The government knows how much the store has earned because copies of all sales receipts or invoices are turned in by the store each month. Frequently vendors will ask you this question when you ask for a price quote and it means: "Is that with an invoice or without?"

In the bartering game, this is one of the tactics used by vendors to lower the price for you without losing any money themselves.

What this really means: If you tell them you do need an invoice the price they quote you will include the sales tax. If you don't need an invoice from them, they will quote you a lower price and save you the sales tax (currently about 15%). What this means for them? Having not issued an invoice, they don't declare this income to the government and thus don't pay taxes on it either. Is it legal? No. Does it happen thousands of times every day throughout the entire country? Yes. Should you agree purchase without an invoice in order to save money? I guess that depends on whether or not you might need an invoice for your own tax deductions, or as proof-of-purchase should you need to return or replace the product. Moreover, it depends on whether or not you are willing to help someone with a little something called tax evasion. My opinion: don't go there.

The Bargaining Process

NEVER show how much you like a product – don’t express your eagerness, amazement, joy or do any “ooooohing” or “aaaaahing” until after you’ve settled on a final price. (It’s already obvious enough that you are a foreigner and it is a general assumption that foreigners are loaded and rich, especially if you are a tourist and not a resident – if you have money for leisure, the assumption is you must have more money than you need.) So even if this is not true, if you make it obvious how much you like or want a product, you’ll never get a discount. If you do this, you can forget about bartering at all. Bartering in Bolivia is a sort of an art form - but you can learn it!

OK, so how do you begin the bartering process?

1. Your first step is to ask the price. Always assume the initial price quoted is too high.

2. Express a little disappointment. Like, too bad it’s so expensive.

3. Ask the vendor if they have a similar item that might cost a little less, or directly ask for a discount – don’t suggest a price yet, just say “would you lower the price a little?”

4. They may offer you another item but will usually take this as a sign to begin lowering the price on the item you really want and will quote you a lower price.

5. Once they give you a second price, you offer something in between.

6. They’ll offer you a third price. If you are happy with it, take it. If not, you can do one of two things: either offer another price, or tell them you really appreciate it but the price is too high and begin to walk away.

7. This will lead them to either let you go (after all, the know their lowest limit and they can’t give their products away), or they’ll offer you a final lower price, or run after you to get your business.

8. Basically, here’s a sort of a general percentage scale to use when bartering: The general format is that they'll suggest a price, you offer around 70% of it, they say 90% and you agree on 80%.

9. Do NOT underestimate little kids because a) they may look little but are probably older than they look, or b) if they really are little kids, as in very young, they've been working the shop for a while and they know how to handle themselves and you! According to this 29 May 2011 article 848,000 children work in Bolivia and 42% of them are salespeople!!!

10. Don't bargain with the extremely poor or very elderly. Bolivia's social assistance and pensions system sucks and they need the money.

Bartering in Bolivia: Example 1

Let’s say you want to buy a leather purse from a street vendor. Your conversation might go something like this:

You: How much does this leather purse cost?

Vendor: Bs. 100

You: Oh, too bad, I don’t have that much money with me. Do you have anything similar that costs less?

Vendor: Well, for you, because I can see you really want it, I will give you this purse for Bs. 90.

You: Mmmm, well, maybe for Bs. 70 I would consider it.

Vendor: 70! No way, this is hand made, high quality! I won’t make any money if I give it away to you at that price.

You: OK, well, thanks anyway, but I really can’t afford much more than that. Maybe another time. (Begin turning away)

Vendor: Wait, because I can see you are truly disappointed I will give it to you for 85.

You: Make it Bs. 80 and you’ve got a deal.

Vendor: Well, OK but only because I really like you. Don’t tell anyone I sold this to you for only Bs. 80. I would be the laughingstock of the market.

You: Really? Thank you so much! Don’t worry, it’ll be our little secret, you can’t imagine how much I appreciate it! Oooooooh, I just love this purse! (Big smile)

Pay the guy, smile a lot, thank him, smile a lot, you’ve got your hard-earned treasure, walk away smiling a lot.

Bartering in Bolivia: Example 2

Here’s another option, which starts off much the same but ends up differently. This is something you can do if there are several vendors in a row all selling similar items:

You: How much does this leather purse cost?

Vendor: Bs. 100

You: Oh, too bad, I don’t have that much money with me. Do you have anything similar that costs less?

Vendor: For you, because I can see you really want it, I will give you this purse for Bs. 90.

You: Mmmm, well, maybe for Bs. 70 I would consider it.

Vendor: 70! No way, this is hand made, high quality! I won’t make any money if I give it away to you at that price.

You: OK, well, thanks anyway, but I really can’t afford much more than that. Maybe another time. (Begin turning away)

Vendor: Wait, because I can see you are truly disappointed I will give it to you for 85.

You: Make it Bs. 80 and you’ve got a deal.

Vendor: No way, Bs. 85 is the lowest I can offer you.

You: OK, thanks anyway, I do appreciate the offer, maybe some other time.

This is when you turn to the vendor next to your vendor (you know, the one who sells the same items and has been carefully watching every move you make)...

You: I see you have the same leather purse, what’s your price?

Vendor: For you, señora, Bs. 80 but not one cent lower.

At this point you have already stated you are willing to pay Bs. 80 to the first vendor so you don’t barter with the second. You pay Bs. 80 and you thank him.

But what will usually happen is that the first vendor will jump up and say “OK OK, I’ll give it to you for Bs. 80!” Then what do you do?

You now have two vendors willing to sell at Bs. 80. It’s all up to you now and how you feel about them both.

OPTION 1: You can very quickly turn back to the first vendor and say:

You: “Are you sure? Really? I’m so happy! Thank you so much, you don’t know how much this means to me! I’ll be back to visit both of you, I promise!” Smiles, smiles, smiles!

Then you also turn to the second vendor, look a little apologetic and thank him too.

You: “Sorry, my friend here’s changed his mind. I really appreciate it though. I’ll look for you next time I’m here.”

OPTION 2: If you want to, you can just buy from the second vendor, after all he was willing to go for your price first, so you say to the first vendor:

You: “Sorry, he’s already accepted my offer for Bs. 80, but I’ll look for you both next time I’m here.”

Bartering in Bolivia: One Last Tip or Six

After haggling over the price and telling the guy you don’t have enough money to pay his initial price, don’t take out a huge wad of money! If you owe Bs. 80 pay him Bs. 80 or at the most Bs. 100. Tell him, “Thanks, I’ve now got just enough left for my taxi home.” Don’t leave him feeling like you duped him! You wouldn’t want him to make you feel cheated either.

Be careful to not offend anyone. You can offend a vendor by offering a price that is too low. You can also offend them by pitting them against the vendor next to them (many times they are relatives or close friends).

You can usually get a discount if you purchase more than one of the same item. You can ask "If I buy 3, what is your price?" The vendor will know you expect a lower price and bargaining begins.

You can also get a discount if you purchase by the dozen. If it is obvious the vendor sells dozens of an item and has the availability, you can ask "What is the price by the dozen?"

You can usually ask for a discount if you purchase more than one item. For example you could ask "If I buy two purses, a belt and a pair of shoes, will you give me a discount?" They usually will.

Don't expect anyone to voluntarily offer you a discount unless you ask for it. The only other time you might be offered a discount without asking for one is if another vendor steps in with a lower price and the two (or more) vendors begin to compete for your business.

Always smile, smile, smile some more. Genuine friendliness and appreciation will get you far when bartering in Bolivia.

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