My successful bargaining attempt in Israel was with a taxi driver in Karmiel, about seven years ago. I had heard (like most tourists) that you can bargain in Israel, so I was determined to drive down the 15 shekel taxi fare that was clearly listed on the meter by the driver. I'll tell him fifteen is too much and ask for thirteen shekels, I thought, feeling smug that I would not pay retail like all those other tourists and that I was about to put my semester of college hebrew to good use.
"Lo! Lo chamesh-esrei yoter!" I said. "Shmonah-esrei! Shmonah-esrei!"
18 shekels? thought the Taxi driver, and took me up on it.
Moral of the story: don't try to bargain if Hebrew numbers confuse you. And thirteen is shlosh-esrei... let's all say that together slowly. On the other hand, I may be the only person I know to have successfully bargained with a taxi driver! (For the record, those little meters are pretty good indication that prices are non-negotiable. As are the posted fares in train stations, busses, and group taxis. You will not look all cool and Israeli if you try to bargain in these places.)
If you want to be Israeli, knowing when not to bargain is just as important as knowning when to bargain.
Case in point: our good friends went to Akko and bought fresh-squeezed orange juice from a vendor. When they were told the price, though, they felt it was too high. As they tried to bargain the guy down ("Lo! Lo twelve shekels!") the guy decided to intimidate the tourists and started shouting at them in a mix of Arabic and English. A crowd of giggling children gathered, and the drama heightened as the orange-juice guy started to pour the fresh-squeezed juice out onto the ground, possibly invoking the way foreign Jews have spilled Arab blood for decades. Our friends finally threw eight shekels at him and took half a cup of juice.
The reality is that they probably were over-charged, but it's not a good idea to try to complain after someone prepares food for you, because then you have already demonstrated your willingness to buy at the stated price. It's not generally a good idea to bargain when you buy food at all-- the check-out ladies at the supermarket don't care enough to charge you less, and prices are listed on pieces of cardboard at the yarkan (fresh fruits and veggies store) for a reason. Similarly, restaurants do tend to mean it when they list the price of falofel or Israeli salad. (If prices aren't posted, listen carefully to the price that the store owner gives to an Israeli before you ask for anything. I paid literally double for the jam in the picture on the right sidebar... but then I made myself feel better by going into the gift shop next door and driving the price of soap down by two shekels. :)
You should also not bargain at the drug store, the department store, or any stores in which bored teenagers work behind the counter rather than the store owner. The exception, of course, is if you know someone high up in the store-- but that's protectzia, not bargaining. If you attempt to bargain in one of these places as a tourist with no chance of building a lasting relationship with a store owner, you will most likely come across as annoying and stingy, because every Israeli knows Americans are all very rich.
The most important time not to bargain, though, is when you don't actually want what you're bargaining for. I've fallen into this trap several times, especially when I go some place with a lot of shiny objects like Jerusalem. I'll vaguely like something, and then get caught up in the battle for shopping justice that is bargaining, insisting that the vase should be only fifty shekels, not 100-- and then when the store owner actually offers me 55, I suddenly realize that I didn't want the vase in the first place. But by that point, I feel obligated to buy and I usually do.
And store owners know this-- they use bargaining as a way to guilt tourists into purchases. My parents and I went to into what appeared to be a consignment shop in a Druze village on the Carmel mountain. With mild curiosity, we asked how much, say, a pair of moccasin-style slippers cost. "Fifty shekel!" he replied. "Real sheepskin! Very warm!" I muttered to my dad that the plasticy fabric on the inside of the slippers was probably an indication they weren't skinned off the owner's own herd of sheep. "Ok, ok, forty shekel!" the owner said huffily, with an air of giving in, of acknowledging that these shoppers were clever. "Forty shekel! My sheep! I pack for you!" He hustled my father over to the cash register, packing the slippers into plastic bags, banging open the register tray. "They're very good! Very warm! You like them very much! Thirty shekel! Just Thirty shekel! You from America? Ok, ok, twenty! I give you two for twenty! Because I like you! Ok, we agree to fifteen. " By this point my father was under the dazed impression that he had been locked in long negotiations with the store owner. I guess I wanted to buy slippers, he thought, or I wouldn't have bargained so hard. And it would be rude to back out now after getting him to push the price down. At least I'm not paying retail like those other tourists! This is how my father ended up with a souveneir of polyester slippers made in China from his trip to Israel. What my father didn't realize was that the store owner was actually bargaining him down-- building a sense of obligation and trying to figure out what price my father would accept simply to be able to leave.
I'll post about when and how TO bargain soon! Any advice on where you can and cannot bargain? (Am I wrong, and can you bargain at the supermarket? :)
Interview with Yeshiva University President Richard Joel
55 minutes ago