05102009296I’ve just returned home from Morocco. Most of the time, we felt quite happy with our negotiations with shopkeepers in the souks of Marrakech, but we did feel caught out by Tariq (pictured, left), the herbalist. His cousin Ali had accosted us while we were taking a shortcut looking for a tourist attraction, and after taking us there he asked us if we wanted to see the spice market. We agreed and half-way down the street we were suddenly introduced to Tariq.

Tariq spoke excellent English and pointing at the brightly coloured displays outside his shop, he identified them to my wife and myself. It was quite educational and he explained how various compounds were used. Then we were invited into his shop and offered tea and given an explanation of the contents of lots of jars on the shelves. This is probably what life was like before goods were packaged and organised within categories. We were bedazzled.

Then moving to the “sell” part of the transaction, Tariq presented my wife with a small gift and then asked what we would like to buy. At this stage, we felt obliged to buy something and he readily interpreted our interest and had £50 worth of goods in a small bag in a surprisingly short period of time. We negotiated this down to less than £20 but still far more than we would have spent on some lumps of stone and wood and spices back home! Or was it?

We had no idea what anything should cost and he pointed to the labels showing that some goods were 1 dirham per gram and some were 2 dirham per gram. He did not show us the weights that he used to weigh the goods and dashed them about with abandon (much as we observed other shopkeepers doing), telling us all along how much each package would cost. (When we returned the UK and weighed the packages they were exactly as he had promised.)

Leaving the shop, we then had to tip Ali for his help and, armed with a bag full of spices were able to look closely at other herbalist outlets without fear of being compelled to buy more.

Tariq’s shop was one of about 20 selling similar products in a short road. The lack of differentiation between shops in Marrakech is remarkable. Traders rely on their negotiating techniques to make sales. However, they appear to suffer from oversupply – with more sellers than shoppers. It is only the small time that tourists are prepared to put into buying mementos that gives the retailer an edge, if he manages to get you talking.

Small boutiques are starting to creep in to the souks and I would be surprised if the haggling method of selling survives much longer. On balance, Tariq caught us out only in that we spent more than we intended and on stuff we did not really want. If we were honest, we would agree that UK retailers do this even more effectively with their promotional offers!