Monday, August 17, 2009

Something about bartering

I was talking with someone--an American--who has a joint operating agreement with a company in China. (He actually sold a Chinese company the right to produce and distribute a product he developed. --I could comment further on what he told me about that experience, but it would be off-topic.)

We got talking about bartering and how one goes about negotiating the best prices in a barter economy . . . as in China . . . and as in most of Thailand (where we were this past week).

I told him about my methods, my pleasure in the process, and some of my favorite experiences of negotiating--like the time, in Old Jerusalem, when I asked a store keeper--more out of idle curiosity than serious interest in purchasing (because I figured it would be too expensive to purchase)--how much he wanted for an ancient coin he had in his case.

The store keeper gave me a price.

"Oh," is all I said. I had no intention of bidding for it. It was way more than I had any interest in spending, and there was "no way" I was going to counter-bid to get the price I had vaguely thought I might spend "if," for some reason, he had mentioned a price that was even remotely close.

"So what did you want it for?" asked the shopkeeper.

"Oh, it's all right," I said, waving my hand and shaking my head to indicate I was not interested in bidding on it.

"No!" he said. "Tell me!"

"No, no," I replied. "Really. I would be embarrassed to mention the number I had thought I might offer for it. It's too low."

"Tell me," he pleaded.

"It's all right," I said. "No."

"Please," he asked.

"Okay," I relented. "But really. I don't expect you to sell it for this. I had absolutely no idea how much you thought it was worth. But I thought, if you had offered it for _____ [a number one quarter the size of what he had mentioned], I would have considered it."

"Oh," he replied.

"Thank you," I said, and bowed slightly as I turned to go.

A few moments later, however, as Sarita and I were walking down the . . . I'm not sure what to call it. It's not really a street there in Old Jerusalem, but maybe you could call it an alley, or a row or something . . . Anyway. As we walked down the way going from the man's shop, I suddenly realized he was at my side.

"Sir," he pleaded, looking at me with earnest eyes. "You know, it is okay to squeeze an orange, but you should leave some juice for a man's children." --He said something like that. I can't remember the exact phrase. But it was something about squeezing an orange and leaving something for a man's children.

I said, "Sir, really. I am not trying to squeeze you. I was just interested in what a coin like that might cost. I had no intention of buying it. I was just curious."

"But if I offered it to you for your price, you would buy it?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Okay," he said.

"What? You will sell it to me for _____?"


--I was truly not excited. But was happy (willing) to conclude the deal.

I mentioned several other situations and said something about figuring my negotiating opposites know for how much they can sell something and still make a profit. They won't sell it for below cost. . . .

I don't know if I told my companion about my experience several years ago in a back alley somewhere in Bangkok when a woman tried to sell me some Siang Pure Balm.

I really didn't want or need any of that amazing ointment, but the woman was persistent. And she pleaded in the most doleful tones.

She spoke no English, and I spoke no Thai. But she made her interests clear. I needed to buy her product for the sake of the baby she was carrying in a sling over her shoulder.

But I don't need any of your balm, I indicated. And, furthermore, I am not interested. And, finally, I have no money.

All I had on my person at the moment was a single coin--and I pulled it out of my pocket.

If my memory serves me correctly, it was a 1 baht coin--the equivalent of 3 cents.

No, no, she shook her head and held up her hand with five fingers extended. She wanted 5 baht--15 cents.

I'm sorry, I pantomimed. I have no more. To illustrate the point, I turned my pockets inside out so she could see: That was truly all I had.

Next thing I knew--I had a small bottle of Siang Pure Balm and she had 1 baht.


"No," said my companion last week. "It is not crazy. And sometimes they will sell to you at below cost."

"What . . .???" I exclaimed. "Come on!"

"No. It's true!"

"But why?"

"They have invested their own money in inventory, and if they are short on cash, they would rather turn the inventory into cash than let it remain as inventory. So they will sell to you at below their cost."

And my thought?

Oh, great! Now I have another moral issue to worry about when I'm negotiating in a foreign context: "What is the lowest legitimate price for me to negotiate so that my counterpart is still making a profit?"

But/and what am I supposed to do if and/or when I really don't want or need whatever-it-is she or he wants to sell?

If they press themselves upon me, must I respond? Must I--unless I have no money at all--offer them something, even if not to purchase whatever-it-is they are trying to sell me? Must I "simply" engage in charity?
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