Christmas shopping can be such a pleasure when you know the person well you’re buying for and you have the perfect idea. But sometimes seasonal shopping can feel more forced and wasteful than joyous and fun, especially when there’s pressure to buy any old thing you’re not too keen on just to be able to put a package under the tree, or have a gift in your hand when you walk through the front door. I used to stress out around Christmas time for this very reason. That, and I have never been a fan of malls, even when there weren’t horrendous crowds.
Then I moved to France.
The French Christmas culture is different than in North America. And so are the places where you get to go looking for those special, unique gifts you’ve planned for a loved one. This is where the pinching in my title comes in. Sometimes I do have to pinch myself when I start off on a day of Christmas shopping in Parisian markets. This weekend was no exception.
I have a sister-in-law who is a lot like me, so it’s fun to go shopping for her. I just pick out something that I would love to take home myself, and I’m sure to have a winner. We both love everything old and worn-in a little, everything that sports character lines and has lived a little longer than we have. She and I have a definite affinity for things that have a story to tell. My parents-in-law, lucky for me at Christmas time, share these same tastes.
When thinking of what to buy one of these people as a Christmas present, the natural place to begin the search is at les brocantes and the antique markets, which are nestled in small corners from one end of Paris to the other.
Riffling through the stalls of these Parisian markets is much like walking around an
outdoor flea-market or a hyper-organized, collective garage sale back home. You have to dig a little to find your treasures. You pursue. (I like that word.) My husband and I have gotten rather good at pursuing. Now we even have a routine.
Step one is the choice of your market. We move around the city a bit. Most of the vendors at a certain market are constants, so to get a little variety and the best deals, its best to meander every so often.
Step two is the complete walkabout. Before we commit to paying an item, we make sure we’ve seen all there is for the asking.
Step three is the more detailed inspection. We return to the stalls or tables where we’ve seen something that’s sparked our interest and we note the quality, any defects and look to see if the price is listed. We pay special attention to how the vendor interacts with other shoppers.
Then, step four, the final step, is the bargaining.
I’m not sure about you, but I find bargaining a rather delicate affair, a fairly uncomfortable endeavor, which I suppose is a particularity for me since I am a lawyer and have taught negotiation courses for several years. Nevertheless, I do find it awkward. I could bargain away on behalf of someone else all day long if need be. But when it comes to my own interests, a certain shyness clouds my mind and erases all my neatly filed theories on the art of negotiation. I always seem to feel a little too much compassion for the seller’s side.
I suppose this infliction comes to me honestly. I come from a long line of “sellers.” My step-father began his career selling financial products to businessmen. My mom sold commercial real-estate in South Florida when I was a girl, and my father’s family is a long line of masons running back from him several generations. As tradesmen, they have to sell their skills, in a way, to potential clients. So my compassion is deeply inbred.
My parents went to Turkey years ago. In the huge markets standing before a large patterned rug, my step-father felt such empathy for the vendor that he not only paid the man his asking price (which in markets is never the last price!), he rounded up!
In France, I’ve learned to overcome these inherited impulses to overpay. I’ve learned how to incorporate all that legal knowledge and experience into practice on my own behalf. Here’s where the tricks come in – seven helpful hints to keep tucked into your pocket for when you’re next in France to do a little shopping at the markets.
1. Have a rough idea of how much you are willing to pay (max) for the item before you begin talking to the vendeur about price. If the price is not listed, ask the salesperson for how much s/he is willing to sell the item.
HINT: The more reputable vendors usually list their prices.
2. Look around to see if there aren’t a few items you might be interested in to buy from the particular stall. If so, ask the vendor if he can make you a deal for all of them together. “Pouvez-vous nous faire un prix pour tous les trois?”
3. Don’t forget to smile, be friendly. Remember your French manners: First thing out of your mouth should be “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur.” And cue the smile. It really does go a long way with the French. And, if someone likes you, they are way more likely to be generous.
4. If the vendor hesitates when you ask talk about price, don’t get frazzled! A few things are at work here: First, they are French, so bumbling and humming and ahhhing is in their nature. Second, remember that their job is to bargain, so they’re very unlikely to say ‘no’ flat out. Third, they need to move their merchandise, so their motivation to sell you that crystal vase is greater than you need to buy it.
5. The vendor will say the price, if it’s not listed. If it fits without your estimated figure for the item, you can haggle a little or you can buy it.
HINT: Always have cash on hand at French markets. These places rarely take cards (rarely, rarely) and are highly unlikely to accept international checks.
6. If the vendor’s price is outrageous, don’t be meek. Offer a little less than what you had planned to pay. Now, wait! Be quiet. Don’t start bargaining against yourself!
If the vendor agrees, great! If s/he counters, find a middle point and make a counter offer yourself. Think of the list you made of the item’s details in Step two (above), particularly the defects, and anchor your counter offer to reasons (e.g. flaking paint, worn edges, chipped enamel). If the gap between your price and theirs is too large, the vendor will likely say, “Beh, non, je ne peux pas! Désolé huh, mais vraiment je ne peux pas.” He’s telling you he can’t.
Don’t lose heart.
7. This is where you ask for the best s/he can do. “Quel prix pouvez-vous me faire?” or “Quel est votre dernier pris, votre meilleure offre?”
With this, you’ve enticed the vendor to do the best s/he can.
From here, you can take it or leave it depending on how much you want that darn vase.
HINT: You can always think about it. There is no pressure to buy on the spot (unless, of course, you have a hot item that many people are looking at, but this rare for non-professional marketing.)
The skill of bargaining is an Art not a Science, so you need to practice. If you are new to the language where you are shopping, try the bargaining in English. Most French vendors know enough English to a make a deal, and if it’ll make you more confident, go for it.
7. Don’t sweat it. Rarely, is anything at these markets a one-of-a-kind item. They are most certainly antique and likely even rare. But France, and Europe for that matter, is full of antique, rare stuff. You’ll find another one, maybe even a better one!
This weekend, my husband and I did much of our Christmas shopping, for that one sister-in-law in particular. Here are some deals we bargained for ourselves! The first two we bought together with the serving knife using Trick # 2. We asked the vendor for the best price he could give us for all three items we were looking at, and he ended up giving me what amounted to one of the pieces for free!
Give it a shot!