When NOT to Bargain

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? :)


  1. You're a little wrong, about taxis. You CAN bargain with a taxi driver, but you have to do it preemptively, before the drive.
    Taxi drivers spend a certain amount of time without passengers in the car "looking" for riders. They're not above being paid a little off the meter to have people in the car with them to "help them look." But you have to negotiate this before hand. Once the taxi driver turned his meter on he's committed to the prices that the station charge, and he has to split the fare with the station (and the state.) Off-meter money, on the other hand, never existed on the books, so he can negotiate his own profit with you.

  2. Ah Maya, I could not agree more about giving into the pressured, aggressive bargaining style of the shopkeeper just to be done and get out of there. They could be quite intimidating...and you find yourself arguing over shekels which is really so little money...for something you don't even really want. Sometimes, it just becomes all about the game of bargaining like a dance where you are constantly fighting on who get's to lead. That's why you are arguing over pennies. Because one penny equals a world of pride. Why do we feel we have to prove ourselves to a hassling stranger?

  3. Maya, that was actually me who made the last comment- I just don't have a gmail account so I used Jimmy...is that a way of bargaining? :)

  4. haha... it totally counts as bargaining... I think

    Hmm... I should try that some time with a taxi driver :)

  5. "For you, my friend, special price....THOUSAND SHEKEL!!!"

    So heartfelt how they call you "my friend" in the shuk. I feel like they're touching my soul.

  6. Hey, your dad actually does LOVE his cheap-o synthetic slippers... he really does wear them about the house :-). Now, those wonderful purple pants *I* bought at the same shop, with the little mirrors sewn in BY HAND (implied 'sewn in by my wife!!!'), made in *India* haven't seen the light of Pennsylvania yet :-).

    This great posting had me laughing out loud :-).

  7. Hey,
    I just found your blog - and as someone who made Aliya 15 years ago, I can only tell you that I enjoy it immensely. Sadly, I am no longer in Israel - but I think I must come for a visit soon! I get homesick hearing about steamrolling shop owners and taxi drivers. A piece of advice in regards to bargaining with taxi drivers - always go by the meter. It is almost always cheaper - there is no Israeli taxi driver alive that has the patience to take a longer route and when they quote you a price they always take possible delays into account.

  8. Sometimes, especially in Jerusalem, taxi drivers will sometimes quote you a price in advance, often much higher then the correct fare. They only activate the meter if you insist. However, as you mentioned, if it's not on the meter it's off the books. I have a friend who, whenever a taxi driver tries to pull that trick, goes along with it. Then, at the end, says to the driver, very simply, "the meter was off, I owe you nothing" and walks away.

  9. A taxi driver in Israel has a license to drive and a license to hustle. It's best to agree on the rules before even stepping into the cab. Dealing with a cab driver is like playing chess against a master. Do you feel up to it? The game of "on the meter" or "off the meter" is a good one and it's difficult to defeat the cab driver. If you're "on the meter", and he thinks he can get away with it, he can take more money from your pocket by taking a longer route very possibly "to avoid traffic". If you agree to an off-the-meter price beforehand, he'll probably only agree to a price that would exceed what you'd pay if you were "on the meter". These guys are shameless. I was walking out of the train station in Be'er Sheva and a driver came up to me and said "Moneet?". I told him that I was going to the bus station. He waved his arm and said helpfully "I'll take you there." I laughed and said "forget it, it's across the street." He shrugged his shoulders in a way Maya pointed out in one of her posts and included the downturned mouth and the curled lip. All meaning "ok, you got me this time. No harm done. Hope you have a nice day". I smiled back.

  10. In many respectable shops bargaining is acceptable, even anticipated, only it MUST be done in a very specific, delicate manner.

    For example, when you go shopping for electric appliances, eyeglasses, furniture, matresses, chandeliers and the like, the posted prices are usually exorbitant. While usually you should not tell the salesperson "I'll give you 500 shekel for this lamp, rather than a thousand", you can certainly ask, matter of business, "and what discount can you give on this? (eize hanacha ata yachol laasot?)"

    You'll be surprised how easily you can get a significant discount, anywhere from 20% to 60%, depending on the line of business. The more expensive the item, the higher the chance of getting some discount - upon asking for it. With confidence.

    For example, if you remodel your home and are hunting for floor tiles, asking what the discount is should be automatic; you can even provide preemptive signalling as to the expected range - "what's the discount on this? 50% or 60% off?" I'm not sure why but these businesses tend to inflate their prices, and it is only fair to do your share of deflating them.

    Note, however, that this is not the classic bargaining act where they say "40", you go "70", they say "55", you propose "65" etc. - these sellers are prepared to knock down profit, but will usually not negotiate further, and may be offended if you tried to.

    Of course, it is perfectly legit to check the discount on a certain item, and then negotiate a better deal assuming you buy "a package" of several items.


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