Pandemic pricing: Are Mideast markets losing the art of the deal?

Taylor Luck

This has a mark on it. How much will you take off?

If I buy two, what price will you give me?

Buy four, and there’s a special discount – just for you.

Such phrases are as much a part of the soundtrack of the souk as crashing waves are at the beach.

Haggling and bargaining – at times a blood-sport, at times a game of poker, at others a carefully choreographed tango with each side refusing to verbalize their true desire – have been the lifeblood of Middle Eastern marketplaces for centuries; some say millennia.

It is a sport of necessity. Vendors move product, shoppers get what they think is a bargain, the circle of commerce is complete.

Haggling has continued as empires rose and fell, weathering natural disasters and war. But now it faces its most difficult challenge yet: the coronavirus.

With curfews, social distancing, the gloves-disinfectant-face mask logistics of hygiene in the beating sun, and concern of close contact, good old-fashioned marketplace shopping has struggled to evolve in the COVID-19 era.

In Arab countries, where vast swaths of the economy are vendors, market stalls, and mom-and-pop shops, the pandemic has taken a huge toll and disrupted an age-old shopping culture.

“No one is engaging”

Despite most Arab countries having been opened for weeks with relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, Middle Eastern market traffic has slowed to a trickle in Amman, Cairo, and Tunis.

In Amman, a valley of shops and street vendors running through the heart of the capital – usually thronged by crowds browsing everything from carpets to chickens – was deserted on a midday midweek.

Abu Mohammed, who normally could sell up to $150 worth of his shop’s nuts, spices, coffees, and herbal remedies to one customer, says he is now lucky to make $75 in sales in an entire day.

“No one is relaxed, no one is stopping to speak, no one is engaging,” he says, slumped over the counter at his empty downtown store, just below a government-issued decal on his shop window reading, “Social distancing, stay two meters apart.”

“No matter if you have your best sales pitch, you can’t get people to stop and think about bartering and buying,” he says. “Only health is on their mind.”

Masked customers make hurried decisions from outside storefronts, or pass by without stopping, concerned about a sudden crowd gathering around them or another shopper sneezing in their face.

“Before, I would just spend hours browsing and holding each dress or plate when I shopped, hunting for the perfect hidden gem that fits my style,” Umm Khaled, a 37-year-old Amman resident, says outside a shop as she waits for a vendor to hand her a set of tea glasses.

Having phoned ahead, she grabs her items quickly.

“Shopping is no longer browsing,” she says, “it’s like picking up a package. I can’t wait to leave.”

Then there’s the psychological impact of the lack of crowds. Deserted marketplaces in Amman, Cairo, or Tunisia’s seaside village gem, Sidi Bou Said, all send a message to shoppers: Shops are closed or something is terribly wrong.

Shopkeepers say they relied on the competition created by bustling crowds; multiple customers holding up and eyeing the same items would create an incentive for shoppers to buy what they think is “the last piece” or make an impulse offer so as not to lose a good deal to another browser.

To want it, you need to touch it

Social distancing means shop owners can’t physically handle an item to show customers its “exquisite craftsmanship,” or present a more expensive product for comparison.

“It’s just not the same,” Bassam Arafeh says in his shemagh stall in a nearly deserted downtown Amman, where for two decades he has relied on street traffic to sell hand-knitted checkered men’s headscarves.

“Shopping is a tactile experience; you have to see and feel the item in order to truly want it,” he says, holding up the handwoven fluffy, white tassels dangling from a shemagh scarf hanging above him. 

“If you just see a photo of a product on Facebook or WhatsApp, you end up thinking more about the price than the item. Rather than thinking about how nice the item is, you just think, ‘Do I really want to spend this amount?’”

Social distancing and pandemic concerns have also disrupted a delicate economic ecosystem for limited-income citizens who relied on haggling for day-old vegetables or worn clothes and who are now wary of used items.

“We can’t afford to get sick. Instead we buy new and buy less,” says Umm Mohammed, a Syrian refugee and mother of five.

The loss of business travel and tourism has also had a ripple effect in the Arab marketplace.

“If someone is visiting from another city or country and has limited time in Cairo, this will be the first, last, and only chance to purchase from your shop,” says Khalil Muhanned, a coppersmith who sells decorative brass and stained-glass lanterns on a side street in old Islamic Cairo.

Such a dynamic allowed shopkeepers to pile items onto a visitors’ shopping list, offering discounts to encourage them to spend “just a little bit more” to get that extra carpet or lantern for their in-laws or co-worker.

“But when no one is traveling from another country, there is no longer a sense of discovery or pressure to make a purchase,” Mr. Muhanned says.

Stopgap measures

Entrepreneurial merchants have come up with a handful of solutions to bring bartering back into the shopping experience.

In Egypt and Jordan, shopkeepers have opened WhatsApp groups updated by the hour, posting their latest wares and encouraging side conversations where they haggle with individual customers; others are relying on Facebook, posting images and encouraging bidding on limited items.

Many in Jordan and the Persian Gulf are starting to rely on a fleet of masked and gloved deliverymen and women working for ride-sharing apps, summoned at the whim of a customer, to complete a transaction without ever meeting the shopper.

But rather than replace the intrigue and adrenaline rush of “naming your price,” shopkeepers say the measures are a stopgap to help them survive the pandemic.

“No matter the amount of technology, once we return closer to normal life, people will be back in the street shopping and bargaining,” predicts Mr. Arafeh, the scarf seller, as he tapes up a handwritten sign reading “25% off.”

“It’s not haggling; it’s human nature.”

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