Tips for haggling, bartering and bargaining in Morocco.
For many, after traveling Moroccos Sahara and endless coastlines and amazing ancient cities, next on the bucket list is shopping for a handmade tribal carpet. And for those gifted in the art of bartering, their price might match what a Moroccan might pay. But knowing the difference is a challenge.
The saying goes: If a buyer is happy with the price then it’s a fair price to pay. While this idea is a little intimidating for travelers who prefer fixed prices, you’ll begin to think differently after a few days of looking around. Arm yourself with some knowledge and techniques, and haggling for carpets can be a rewarding experience (and make your rooms at home look astounding).
But First – do your homework!
Number one rule – always shop around before buying anything. Before leaving home you can also research the multitude of sites and blogs online if you intend to buy anything of real value. There’s wonderful shopping in markets all over Morocco but fake synthetic Chinese machine made carpets have finally found the Marrakech souks. They’re asking ridiculous prices and are being touted as genuine hand made wool Berber carpets. That ceramic pot might be glazed in Morocco but it was cheaply pre-made and imported from China or Italy. And those pretty lanterns aren’t silver, they’re polished tin. So look around and take your time to learn.
Number two rule is ask lots of questions and never buy anything of value on your first visit to the souks.
Number three rule read through this website. Every recommendation below has successfully been tried and tested at least once.
Where to Buy Carpets
Carpets are big business in Morocco and the men who sell them come from a long tradition of using whatever works to get the highest price. There are many kinds of sellers all over the country, not all carpet shops are housed in former palaces. Some will be street vendors, some will be small shops, some will be in the country souk, and sometimes they will be pulling carpets from the back of a car.
Women’s cooperatives mean the weavers are involved in the pricing and selling process, but not necessarily receiving the profits. They usually have set prices. These shops are fine if you’re interested in buying a carpet that’s not unique. Cooperatives tend to be small manufacturing workshops that focus on making money for the Association by creating the most popular designs over and over to increase their sales.
Who Are the Weavers?
Moroccan women and men have sat at looms for centuries and amazingly have created the fifth-largest economic source in Morocco. Despite weavers artistic skill and expertise, women are not paid well by carpet dealers.
10 Things to Look for in a Well Made Carpet
Ideally a carpet should display certain qualities, but you may want to buy a lesser carpet simply because its gorgeous. Go ahead. You can use the excuse that it’s not that well made because it has any of the following flaws, and barter for a lower price.
1. Wonky shape?
Not a problem. A carpet made on a non commercial hand loom will not be a perfect square or rectangle. It will often be a skewed shape, even wider at the top and narrower at the bottom but not so much that it’s a loose weave.
2. Wonky edges?
But you do want a carpet to have relatively straight sides – not too wavey. It means the loom was strung properly with weft threads (see below) that haven’t stretched and that the carpet has a good tight evenly knotted weave throughout.
3. Lay it flat.
Again a sign the weft hasn’t stretched or is too tight if it doesn’t have bumpy sections or curl up at the corners or edges. It should be relaxed and lay flat as a board on the floor.
4. Finished top and bottom.
Not always done in cheaper carpets but the end threads at the top and the bottom should be tightly fringe knotted to prevent fraying.
Also a sign it’s made by hand. A perfect carpet does not exist if handmade. You shouldn’t buy unless it’s antique or you actually love it and must have it, but some of the most valuable carpets in the world have holes in them!
6. Look at the reverse side.
Flip over a corner and have a look. Are the knots nice and tight and even? Or can you work your finger between the loose weave? On the other hand, a machine-made rug will have many tight and uniform small knots and a hard edge where the machine has “finished” the carpet. Carpets with hundreds of knots per inch are not found in Morocco and tribal carpets are not incredibly “fine” because they are not knotted by hand by children. They are woven by grown women of all ages who are working with their ancient traditions.
7. Is it wool? Cotton? Silk?
Synthetic fibers will melt. Natural fibers will smolder. Ask to burn a snippet of fringe to determine what material was used to make the carpet. Smell it. Does it smell like burning hair? Congratulations, you have a genuine wool carpet in your hands. Silk in Morocco does not come from the fiber of the silk worm. Moroccan silk is a plant fiber that comes from the large grey-green yucca plants you’ll see everywhere in the country side. This fiber dyes into beautiful bright colours and is tough as nails woven into bomb proof kilim style carpets. Great for heavy traffic areas in your home!
8. Know your weft from your warp.
Warp are strung vertically onto the loom first creating the back bone of the carpet. To make the design on the face of the carpet, threads called weft are then woven horizontally in and out and pounded down with a tool called a beater. Warp fibers can sometimes be cotton, and the weft of the carpet design in wool. Buy a 100% wool carpet for durability. The cotton warp will likely start to fall apart after years of wear.
9. Colours and Dyes
Colour is important in moroccan tribal weaving and certain tribes favour certain colours. Natural dyes are only found in items over 70-80 years old – almond leaves, cochineal, indigo, iron sulphate and cow urine were used. Both synthetic and natural dyes fade – with older rugs you can be sure that most of the fading has already occurred. Properly used, synthetic dyes can produce just as wonderful results as natural pigments.
Colours that change from one end of the carpet to the other add interest and value to the piece. It means the wool was hand died in small batches. Especially in larger pieces, colours will likely shift throughout the piece if the wool has not been commercially sourced. New carpets may appear bright and illustrious but their colors will mellow over time – something that actually adds to the piece.
You’ll probably be told your carpet colours come from mint green, or saffron yellow, or indigo blue. Mint does not produce green, nor would the valuable saffron ever be used to dye wool. Both natural and commercial dyes are used by women all over Morocco and these days the very brightest commercially dyed skeins are found for sale in every country market.
10. Antique or Just Well Used?
A carpet more than 50 years old might be deemed more valuable especially if it’s in good shape and is well made. With this in mind, many newer carpets are artificially aged by hanging them in the sun. When they’ve weathered thoroughly they’ll be brought into the shop to be sold as a more valuable antique. The design is usually the give away and the back will still display bright colour. If its design is echoing the newer carpets in the shop then its probably a fake. But if the design is original and the colours are natural earth tones it could be the real thing.
Keep in mind that collectors will have the first go at any genuine antique quality carpet. The chance that any tourist walking in the door will find one right away is probably very rare. But if you’re after something really special you’ll have to ask specifically for that. Only then will they tentatively show you something. It may be a few streets away in a back alley house, but do go and investigate. If you don’t know your carpets they can tell. So do your homework and be prepared to do some serious haggling – even over a number of days – if you don’t want to go home with something worth a fraction of what you paid.
How Buying a Carpet Works
You’ve likely heard the term location, location, location. Well with haggling it’s attitude, attitude, attitude. There are many different techniques to effectively haggle over prices, but wow what a smile can do!
Before shopping create a conversion chart from 1 to 10 dirhams to your own currency based upon the current rates posted at the local banks – not from the internet! You’ll need to refer to this list as you counter offer so you’ll know what it equals in your own currency by adding zeros to the amount of course. It’s much quicker than using a calculator and avoids errors.
Remember haggling is a game of patience. There is a formality to the process that goes like this. When you walk in the door they will assume you know nothing about carpets. First you’ll be welcomed to Morocco and asked where you come from. This allows them to size you up and find out which currency you will be paying in. Then you’ll be asked if this is your first time in Morocco. This allows them to know how much you know about haggling.
You’ll next be offered a cushy seat and served sweet mint tea. Do drink the tea. It’s good for energy! But take your time to look around the shop before settling in for his grand presentation. He’ll summon his staff to roll out the best carpets one by one and tell you everything about them. You’ll be dizzy after viewing 10 – 15 – 20 carpets of all sizes and colours. Then they’ll whittle it down to the one you should buy.
If you’re truly not interested don’t fake that you are, just to be polite. It’s time to leave. If he won’t let you out of the shop and is blocking your way, just look away and plow through with a polite farewell.
On the other hand you may have seen one or two that look great, but it’s best to not show too much interest. No ooo-ing and ahhh-ing over the beauties! Be casual. Ask to have them put aside so you can view them separately off the pile. Get up and have a closer look. Take your time to go over the quality 10 point list and check them out, front and back. Bring your lighter to do a burn test. Ask questions. Take your time. Never hurry.
At this point a bus load of tourists might have entered the shop and your seller will suddenly be on their trail making you feel abandoned. But if you’ve definitely found the one you want, leave and come back later when they are not busy. Don’t wait a few days because if your carpet was truly unique and gorgeous, by then it likely will have sold.
Closing the Deal
OK so now you are ready to take the plunge and make an offer. Remember don’t hurry. Be fair!
1. First make it clear you want to bargain in dirhams. Avoid bargaining in euros, or american dollars, or any foreign currency values. The price will always be higher.
2. They will start the bargaining process by presenting a number over the moon. It may be presented in writing. If his price is not too ridiculous, counter offer that amount by 1/2 to 2/3rds. Don’t sound too eager. If you think of what you would pay for this carpet back home, keep that in mind and start with 2/3rd of that number converted to equivalent dirhams of course.
3. He might use the excuse “You must be joking, it cost us more than that…”, great! You’ve gone in at the right price and now you’re under way.
4. If he refuses to counter offer you might ask for the price of 2 carpets for his asking price, if you had 2 in mind. Or if you are settled at a price more than half the original asking price, the seller might agree to do add another carpet for the full asking price. You might get more for your money this way, or you might be pushing your luck.
5. Make them laugh while going through the process. If you can entertain your dealer, he may be more amiable to your suggested price. Moroccans love jokes.
6. Take your time. Don’t appear too eager. Don’t be pushy. And don’t offer up in large amounts, keep your price increases low but not so much as to make him frustrated. He might call you a Twareg (nomad from the Mauritanian Sahara) if your haggling is effective. Smile like it’s a great compliment!
7. If he plays the ‘poor me’ card as in: my family is ten people and the weavers mother is sick and their father dead, and so on… remember chances are he’s got a new Mercedes parked out back. But don’t let him know you know. You can always sympathize but it’s preferable to remain indifferent. Life has its ups and downs, using these excuses to charge more doesn’t belong in the market place.
8. To take command of a situation you don’t want, smiling and pretending you don’t have a clue is really fun.
9. Don’t ooohhh and ahhh over the little beauty before your eyes. Never let them know how much you want this. Look doubtfully around the shop, as if changing your mind.
10. Tell him you’re not sure you like it enough to pay a lot of money. The last shop had something similar for less.
11. Tell him it’s got flaws (use our 10 point list above) and offer a price to match. But never refer to it as a cheap carpet.
12. If he becomes intimidating, or worse, angry, remember don’t be afraid to walk out if it’s getting ridiculous, and don’t think leaving will “hurt” his feelings. It’s your money! Any abuse is just not necessary.
13. Never ever reveal how much money you actually have. When he’s getting stuck on not lowering the price, waiving a fistful of cash dirhams before his eyes will really make him want to close the sale! You can plead your final price is all the money you have.
14. And don’t back down. It can take several days to buy a carpet you really hanker for. Keep coming back if you don’t arrive at a price the first time trying. They’ll soften to know you really like their carpet, especially if it’s low tourist season. If it’s a beauty you simply must have, buy it because you probably won’t find the exact same thing anywhere else – if youv’e previously looked around that is.
15. If making the final payment by credit card make sure they convert the final amount from dirhams and use your conversion chart! Otherwise you might find your credit card bill at home has 1800 dollars on it instead of the proper conversion from your final agreed price of 1800 dirhams!
16. And finally, make sure the name, telephone and address of the shop is on the receipt. They should ink stamp and sign over the stamp to make it valid.
Achieving that really good deal will boost your confidence and the satisfaction you feel is not just about the money, it’s about proving something to yourself. You’ve come through as a winner and have the memories and something beautiful to show for it when you get home.