Shopping In Egypt – A Rough Survival Guide

If you hate shopping… you’re really going to hate shopping in Egypt. Forget window browsing, because it doesn’t exist there. The hard sell is one way of looking at it; a fully interactive shopping experience is another.

That bazaar magic is of course, the art of haggling, and depending on what type of person you are it will either send you to orgasmic heights of shopping or scare your wallet so far down your trousers that you’ll find it hard to use that wad of notes as currency again.

I for one am far too genial to haggle effectively, but my wife has no such qualms and would happily barter, procrastinate and emotionally manipulate sellers until we walked away with a treasure trove of bargains for the price other people were paying for a postcard. This may sound awful, but I swear, they love to haggle in Egypt. An Egyptian street vendor who doesn’t haggle is like the American shop assistant who doesn’t say ‘have a nice day’ or the British clerk who forgets to scowl. Am I being stereotypical? Sure I am. But where do stereotypes come from? Well, in the case of haggling, they come from Egypt. And who better to haggle with than the ruthless capitalist tourists of the west?

A vast range of goods are available from Egypt, the most important of these being; trinkets based upon ancient monuments, spices (although these are not always what they appear to be), gold and cotton. All of these items are available at a price that is never entirely clear to you. You will not find a price tag and if you ask how much it is you will generally be given a price that is twice what you will end up paying for it… if you haggle that is. Shopping in Egypt is an art, a delicate multistage process that can culminate in extreme shopping satisfaction or a brain malfunction.

The first thing you must do when you enter a shop or approach a vendor in Egypt is to not act surprised when they correctly guess your nationality. You stick out like a sore thumb and there have been countless droves before you who’ve been drawn into parting with a small fortune based on innocent conversational starters like, ‘lovely people… (insert nationality)… not like the (insert nationality that is not your own)… I no like them.’ Now, I’m not suggesting that you clam up and don’t communicate… far from it. The Egyptian people are warm and welcoming and I would strongly recommend that you enjoy these conversations. Just be aware that your custom is wooed like a gentleman of court would a lady of fashion; the most charming, can often be the most persuasive. You must constantly remind yourself that you are not the best of friends… you are engaged in a preamble to a sale.

One of the nice things about shopping in Egypt is that you will be offered a cup of Hibiscus tea almost everywhere you go. This thoroughly refreshing blend is an acquired taste but you will at least be able to tell everyone back home that you ‘made like the locals’ and had tea with a nice Egyptian man. The tea is doubly pleasant considering that temperatures further south in Egypt regularly top 40 degrees centigrade. Just remember… all that tea must go somewhere. If you plan to make a toilet stop whilst shopping in Egypt, be sure that you have some tissues to hand or a few notes of the local currency to pay for toilet roll from another enterprising native. Is nothing free in this world?

Back to shopping… and if you are interested in an item, don’t make out that you are. This may sound obvious, but pulling off indifference is harder than it sounds. Once you’ve mastered sounding indifferent, you’re halfway to being a successful haggler. A successfully indifferent face will lead to a cascade of price drops… but when to stop?

When you hear them say ‘I have kids to feed’ you know you’re getting a reasonably good deal. It’s like a game of poker in many respects, don’t show your hand too early or you’ll lose out. Which brings me to another important point… don’t produce a wallet ripe with notes. Not only is it a risk (pickpockets are common in busy markets) you risk insulting the vendor you’ve haggled down to the bone.

It’s well worth noting that in the tourist hot spots along the Nile, particularly in the official government shops, goods are generally a lot more expensive than in Red Sea resorts. If you’re planning a trip to the Red Sea coast, many if not all of the goods (including those associated with ancient Egypt) are available in outlets there. In El Gouna for instance you will find things such as jewelry and perfumes are available at a fraction of the cost you might pay in Luxor or Cairo.

At the end of the day though, a good purchase is something that you want at a price that you believe is fair. Haggle politely, haggle responsibly and you may find shopping in Egypt an experience money can’t buy. You can’t haggle for that.