Shopping while you travel can be super exciting, but it’s not without its trap! The complicated art of bargain is often a challenge for visitors used to fixed prices at their mall at home, and the sea of cheap knock-offs and tacky souvenirs in just about any major tourist destination makes it difficult to tell when you’ve found a true local gem.
Become a savvier shopper with our tips for avoiding fakes, haggling like a pro and getting your goods home at the end of your trip.
Shopping in Iran
Once inside a shop, don’t wait for the clerk, who could well be the owner, to ask what you would like. The usual practice is to ask for what you want yourself, or in a small grocery shop where there are no shopping baskets, to pick your items and then put them on the counter while you look around for some more items.
Customers who walk into the shop after you may be served before you, possibly because they are faster to ask for what they want.
Complaining that you were there before them will probably work, but Iranians will consider this strange, because in shops the understanding is “ask and you will be given.” Lines are formed in banks, government offices, and traditional bakeries because it is clear that a customer wants something.
This is not the case in shops, where customers may not find what they are looking for, or may be trying to decide what to buy, so customers don’t line up.
Iranians are seasoned negotiators, having developed their skills since childhood, and, apart from the financial gain, often enjoy the bargaining experience for the sake of it.
In Iran, almost everything apart from retail groceries and restaurant and hotel bills is negotiable.
Bargaining for an item or a service is a task that takes some getting used to. In the West, large shopping chains carry out their own kind of bargaining: chain stores undercut competitors with offers like “buy one and get one free,” or promising to refund the difference if you find the same item cheaper elsewhere.
Because this bargaining takes place at a corporate level, Western visitors are generally not used to bartering in the context of everyday shopping in the same way that Iranians are.
Shopkeepers believe that the first sale of the day (dasht-e avval) carries a special blessing. If it is an expensive purchase such as clothes, shoes, or electrical goods, shoppers will have an advantage when it comes to bargaining, as we will see later in this chapter.
How to Bargain Successfully in Iran
First, you need to convince the seller that you are a serious buyer and aren’t just browsing. Ask the price and express surprise or disappointment in words or by facial expression.
The seller will respond with something like, “This is the market price,” or “You won’t find it cheaper elsewhere.” You can say that the shop in the next street sells it cheaper, and quote a much lower price than the one you are prepared to pay.
He will lower his asking price a bit. If you aren’t prepared to pay it, or you enjoy the game for its own sake, raise your own price but don’t match his yet. Depending on the seller’s and your resilience, this back-and-forth may go on for some time.
When he reaches his absolute lowest price, he will often signify it by saying, “XXX thousand tumans, last offer.” You can then agree or still not make a purchase.
Once you have agreed on a price, your Iranian interlocutor will say qâbeli nâdare—“It is not worthy of you” (i.e., “You can have it for free”).
Shopkeepers and taxi drivers also say the same when you ask how much you should pay them. This offer is, of course, not to be taken at face value even if repeated, as it only indicates the speaker’s goodwill and pure intention.
The idea expressed by this offer is that in an ideal world you would be his guest, but this is not an ideal world, and everyone has to get paid. The response to this offer is khâhesh mikonam (please), which acknowledges the intention, followed by your payment.
The Iran BÂZÂRi Class
Every provincial capital has its own central bazaar that provides shops in their province with locally produced goods and food. Imported or manufactured goods are usually sold wholesale from the Tehran Grand Bazaar (Bâzâr-e Bororg-e Tehrân), which is the commercial heart of Tehran and of the whole of Iran.
Some provincial bazaars are centuries old, but the Tehran Grand Bazaar developed from clusters of specialty small craft markets about 150 years ago near the then seat of Qajar royalty, the Golestân Palace (which is just up the road and well worth a visit).
The bazaar is a maze of narrow alleys in which small shops and stalls sell goods and commodities. Some alleys take their name from the goods sold there, for example, Bâzâr-e Mesgar-hâ (coppersmiths’ market) or from a famous person.
The visual effects of the bazaar range from the dazzling, as in the goldsmiths’ market, to the uniformly muted, as in Kilo-ee-ha Alley, where shops stock only black chador fabric, and everything in between: shoes, clothes, household goods, stationery, and anything else you can imagine.
Some stalls sell on a retail basis, but many others are only shop windows—they showcase the merchandise available in the large storerooms that wholesalers maintain elsewhere and only sell to these potential wholesale buyers.
In addition to the wholesale and retail shops, the bazaar contains banking and credit facilities, where prices for gold, commodities, staple goods, and foreign exchange rates are determined and influence nationwide prices.
Thus, the Tehran Grand Bazaar is the financial heart of the whole country, much like Wall Street or the City of London.
The bâzâri class includes those employed in wholesale trade and financial institutions, workshop owners, distributors, and middlemen, and they represent the solid, conservative social strata.
Traditionally, the bâzâri families have enjoyed familial ties with the clerical class (ulemâ) and, exercising their financial muscle in conjunction with the ulema’s spiritual influence, have often brought pressure to bear on the Iranian monarchy’s autocratic tendencies.
Iran Shopping Hours
Grocers and greengrocers are open every day and keep very long hours, opening early in the morning and not closing until late at night. Other shops open about 9:30 A.M. and their shopping hours vary according to location.
Neighborhood shops that are likely to be owned and run by a local resident usually close after the noon call to prayer for lunch and a siesta, and then reopen from about 4:30–8:00 in the winter and about 5:00–9:30 in the summer.
Centrally located shops or larger stores are more likely to remain open throughout the day until late at night, although in the height of summer they are unlikely to have any customers after lunch, so they may pull down the shutters halfway to indicate that they are resting.
If you plan to go to a specific shop, call ahead before setting off. The bazaar keeps different hours from retail shops. It is open Saturday to Thursday from about 9:30–5:30 (but closes at about 3:00 on Thursdays) and is closed on Fridays and public holidays.