To Buy or Not to Buy
By Victoria Fenner
When you’re on vacation in a developing country, do you enjoy the process of haggling with local merchants over the price of bracelets, shawls, and wood carvings? Or do you run the other way when a person with an armful of goods starts walking towards you?
Either way, the business practices of a lot of our favorite tourist destinations are a lot different than they are up here in the shopping malls of North America.
Most of us are amazed at the bargains that can be found in developing country markets. Most of the merchants there are middlemen (and women) who have bought their wares from people too poor to make the trip to market. The craftspeople who made the things you are contemplating buying are at the mercy of the middlemen. The money they earn for their hours of work is meager. Few of us would work for pennies a day.
The hawkers on the street aren’t often doing much better. Prices in the morning are higher than they are in the afternoon as vendors realize they don’t enough money for food for their family’s supper.
There are a few things that you can do to improve the lives of independent craftspeople. You can resist the temptation to haggle with vendors and give them the price they ask (typically much less than what you’d pay here in Canada). If language issues aren’t a barrier, you can ask the vendor how much of your money is going to the person who made the craft. You can refuse to buy from vendors who demonstrate an insensitive attitude towards their suppliers. If you can get out to villages and buy from craftspeople directly, that’s a great thing to do too. The closer you get to the place where goods are made, the more money is staying in the community where they were produced.
Of course, you don’t have to travel to the source to buy exotic carvings, jewellery, and other such goods. They are readily available here in Canada. And the Fair Trade crafts movement is growing. Small independent suppliers such as Claudia Valdes of Latin Treasures, in Hamilton Ontario, can give you some ideas. Or have Ten Thousand Villages — a division of the Mennonite Central Committee — do the fair trading for you. They’ll give you a free cup of coffee (fair trade of course) while you shop.
But if you really like the thrill of negotiating with street or market vendors, go ahead and do it for the fun of it — remembering that if you can afford the trip to get there and bargain, your nickels and dimes are worth a lot more to the person you’re haggling with than they are to you.