Negotiating across cultures in Morocco

Everywhere we turned, people were singing excitedly with drum sets, dancing in traditional clothing, showing magic tricks to bystanders, gymnastics on top of each others’ shoulder, or attempting to sell tourists items from their small shops. It was night time, but the exhilarating rush of the Monday night bazaar kept everyone at the Marrakech market wide awake through the late hours.

I had the ultimate aerial view of the bustling marketplace from the third floor of the well-known Café Argana. Bright lights illuminated numerous rows of tent-like booths that contained everything from different kinds of food, such as fruits, nuts, and meats, to a selection of varying CDs to healing herbs and crystal rocks, to hand-woven, detailed rugs. San Diego farmers’ markets, whether in Hillcrest, Little Italy, or Ocean Beach, do not compare to the nighttime buzz and fast-paced atmosphere of a typical night in the main markets of Marrakech, Morocco.

Senior Claire Tolan witnessed the vibrant market nightlife of Morocco in several cities, including Marrakech.

“I was surprised that the market was so busy, especially for a Monday night,” Tolan said. “You could tell that [the market] was the heart of the city of Marrakech, and you could feel the passion and pride that these locals have for their home.”

After dinner, Tolan and I walked around the bazaar to get a feel for the hype and excitement of the most unfamiliar market situation we had ever experienced. As we passed through the little shops, Moroccan men would eagerly try to sell their products. Vendors sold items ranging from knockoff Yeezy brand shoes to beautifully colored pashmina scarves to antique candle holders to traditional Moroccan attire. Moroccan market vendors had a vastly different marketing approach than we were used to. If they caught us staring at an item, the vendors would ask us if we liked whatever product they found us staring at, hoping to sell to it us. Even if we were not relatively close to their store, the men still managed to walk up to us and shout out prices in Dirham, the Moroccan currency.

A majority of the shop owners had aggressive approaches to get people to buy something and were extremely willing to negotiate prices, so long as they were left with money in hand. Bartering is a vital aspect of these markets, and as travelers we learned that quickly. The foreign phrases we heard on the first day turned into the casual lingo we used the following times we walked into Moroccan marketplaces. When we hesitated at their initial price, they asked us how much we were willing to pay. They attempted to make us feel like valued customers by telling us they would give us a good, special price. They followed us as we turned away, hoping to convince us one last time to buy something.

Tolan said she was surprised by the business owners’ selling methods.

“I expected the bartering and small stores, but I was not expecting the shop owners to be so aggressive,” Tolan said. “Shop owners would come up to you, touch your arm, and escort you into their shop. They were willing to make any sale, as long as they received some sort of cash. It was irritating when some people would not take no for an answer and would follow you until they lowered to a price you were willing to pay.”

Despite the stressful bartering situations, Tolan shared that she appreciated the interactions she had with several locals.

“The language barrier and the contradicting bartering prices made it hard to know what the actual value of the product was,” Tolan said. “But I loved getting to know some of the shop owners in the stores and learning about their life. We were able to connect on another level with some, and it was cool to see the commonalities of others that are half a world away from us. It was such a different and intriguing shopping experience than what I am used to.”

Shopping at these traditional markets throughout the entire week was an essential part of the Moroccan experience. It was unlike the shopping I experienced in Italy or Spain—places that seemed to have H&M and Zara shops on every corner—and felt like shopping at the malls back home.

I was astonished by the large amount of fake designer brand products being sold at everywhere in Morocco. Fake Prada, Michael Kors, Céline, and Louis Vuitton purses lined the shelves. Because trading and bargaining were such a prominent part of the market environment, I found myself bartering with many of the locals. I walked away with a fake Louis Vuitton backpack after bartering it from 600 to 200 Dirham, which is around $20. Although the process of lowering the price of the backpack was overwhelming, I was proud to have made use of my new bartering skills. At the same time, a part of me felt guilty for taking advantage of such cheap prices.

Junior Alex Worden was one of many travelers who engaged in negotiating prices at these markets. Worden discussed the Moroccan market experience in his international marketing class on Semester at Sea.

“The dilemma that we find in our Western culture is that there is a social and economical protocol for set prices; it is the way our economy works,” Worden said. “When we go into the Moroccan markets, we want to see a price tag, but the owners either ask us what we want to pay, or we ask them the value of the product. We talked in my marketing class about how we assume that these shop owners set an initial value in order for them to make a profit as a business [and], in turn, maintaining their livelihood. When we undercut their prices, we feel merciless or immoral, practically robbing them of money.”

In this particular society, many of these businesses are designed with bartering in mind. Worden explained why he said that visiting tourists should not feel completely guilty about bargaining prices.

“They hike up the starting prices, assuming we will barter with them,” Worden said. “This is how the process runs: they set a price and assume customers will undercut them, then, once they find an agreed upon price, the shop owner is right where they need to be to turn a profit. We may think we’re getting 60 percent off of a Moroccan rug, but we have no way of knowing the true value. It’s just business.”

Our time in Morocco introduced us to a different way of shopping that entailed many assertive negotiations. Engaging in conversation with the local Moroccan people and gaining an understanding of their daily lives gave me a fuller image of Moroccan culture.

Written by Tayler RV, Staff Writer