World-famous for both the fare on offer and its kinetic energy, Marrakech’s open-air market, or souk, offers a uniquely Moroccan shopping experience not to be missed. But be warned: even the fiercest sharks at the bargaining tables of Europe and North America will need to master Morocco’s culturally specific negotiating techniques to haggle in Marrakech.
The souk takes place on Wednesdays and Sundays, and a visit is like travelling back in time. You’ll find yourself in the Middle Ages surrounded by people selling spices, vegetables, jewelry, donkeys, goats, sheep and Versace’s spring collection. You’ll no doubt be accosted by some charming young boys, all claiming to be on the board of B&R and qualified to guide you around the souk and help you buy. Don’t worry, they generally ensure that you see highlights like the donkey car park and the date section, and will be happy to “interpret” for you.
What you do need to know is that anyone who helps you buy, translates for you, or acts as an intermediary of any sort in a transaction is likely to get a commission on your purchases from the vendor. There is no way of avoiding this and it is an integral part of Moroccan commerce. Therefore you need not tip them unless you specifically requested their services and did not buy. (In this case, 20 dirhams is fine.) In terms of haggling, whether it be for rugs, clothing or jewelry, the idea is to start at a tenth of the asking price and work up, knowing what your last price will be and sticking to it.
You should also know that if you are in a group of several people thinking of buying, say, rugs, and the perspective buyers are slow in closing deals, the first person to close will often get a relatively low price in order to start the “buying fever.” If you reach a stalemate and don’t want to compromise, try walking away—it often works. The bottom line is that Moroccans are superb salespeople, and any transaction can be a tremendous opportunity for some fascinating cultural insights. If you do decide to brave this ancient game with the pros, remember to laugh and smile a lot—a relentless sense of humour is essential in dealings with Moroccans. It is also better never to ask the price of the object you really want—a dead giveaway. Instead, inquire about the less attractive item beside it. Never go back on a price you have already agreed to pay. This is culturally offensive. Once you shake hands, you are 100% committed. Most importantly, sit back and enjoy the haggling—and try not to think about the generous margins enjoyed by Bloomingdale’s back home.