Probably from the first time I thought about visiting Istanbul, I have wanted to wander around the Grand Bazaar. One of the world’s oldest and largest, the GB is over 31,000 square meters, with over sixty four streets and alleys, twenty two entrances, and a mere 4,000 shops. Its origin dates back to 1461 and the days of Mehmet the Conqueror. I guess this would be the first shopping center ever built? It became the center of trade for the entire Ottoman Empire.
According to the Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname, by the seventeenth century the Kapalı Çarşı (or the Çarşı-yı-Kebir as it was known at the time) had reached its present size, with over 4,000 shops and nearly 500 stalls known in Turkish as dolap (literally translated to “cupboard”).
The Grand Bazaar is really a city within a city, with its own police station, post office, dispensary, several banks, and a tourist information center. Also on site are restaurants, a hammam, a mosque, and about ten smaller prayer rooms (mescits).
Each and every travel expert tells me that I should expect to get lost, at least many times! Chatting and bargaining, rather than rushing through the bazaar, provides the best experience. The eventual purchase is not as important as the haggling, and the relationship between buyer and seller.
I would expect sensory overload to be my first impression. Maybe the second and third as well. But I love these markets as I travel the world, but never having been to any this large, or this “foreign” to me. So, putting my hands on the product will encourage the vendor to close the sale. The more aggressive the vendor, the more likely the item is probably not worth my time. They say the most trusted shopkeepers do not harass customers into buying their products. I hope that is true!
Among the items for sale are jewelry, of course, antiques, furniture, leather goods, casual clothing, souvenirs, carpets, textiles, made to order, and eating and drinking. But the common denominator: they all use one liners and attention grabbers to attract customers. If you feel like a conversation, go for it, but beware of giving the merchant false hope that you will buy from them!
With anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 visitors (over 90 million annually) a day, I expect it to be crazy. The bazaar is open every day but Sunday, from 9:00 to 19:00. So, how can I go about buying something, without overpaying, or pissing off the shop keeper? With 25,000 staff people, the place is buzzing!
First, the person waiting on me is most likely not the owner or shop keeper. And he or she is on a sales quota, getting paid only a commission for what is sold. So, much like vendors the world over, the early morning is when the sales person wants to make sure they reach their daily quota. As the day progresses, and they have made their quota, their focus turns to either more commission, or keeping the shop keeper happy by trying to sell excess or unwanted inventory. Between 11:00 and 13:00 are the best times, according to the experts.
On my side of the sale, I must try not too look very eager. And don’t just focus on one item, though make a mental note of it while looking around. Once an item is chosen, make the sales person give the best price first. Then, with a look of total astonishment, leave the item and head to another store with similar items. Either the clerk makes a new offer, buying my bluff, or he lets me walk. Once a new offer is made, the real bargaining starts.
Another trick, is slow and steady is the best course. The clerk’s urge to sell should be greater than my desire to buy. Never rush the bargaining process. Many times they will offer tea, usually in a hidden corner of the store. Why? So nobody else can hear what is going on. And second, the clerk may want to create a need for the sale, a more personal reason, like a family to feed or a sick relative.
Of course, it is all just a story, and his children will still be able to go to college, with or without your purchase. Keep playing his game with nods, and maybes. Without hard and fast rules, I always aim for 50% of the asking price. It may require some practice, though I have done it in SE Asia numerous times.
With 18 million people, I am certain there are a few that would like to make a buck or two off of me. They prefer targets who are alone. Bars with overpriced drinks, and under dressed women are a red flag. Single white men are the best target, usually confronted by a well dressed English speaking tout. Shoe shines and pick pockets are another scam.
Now, what really do I expect to buy? Maybe a T shirt or two, some spices and tea, a fridge magnet, that’s about it. I do not need a rug, jewelry, clothing, second hand books, clay pottery, pipe, or leather goods. They probably will not be too happy with me. But the lamp store might be somewhere I could buy, since we have several Turkish lamps at home.
I love the markets around the world here the locals shop.