The techniques, exasperations and informative joys of bargaining are familiar subjects to long-time foreign residents and visitors in Mexico. But the proliferation of supermarkets and the merchandising practice at many public and street markets of placing fixed prices on goods has confused some newcomers to Mexico, muddying concepts of inter-cultural exchange.
It’s important to recall that when the first Spanish Conquistadores landed in Mexico, one of their initial experiences in this New World was that of regateando (bargaining). And they immediately lost this first battle of wits. Over by Veracruz the local Indios palmed off a small mountain of clay beads cleverly dipped in a thin wash of gold to these clanky newcomers. Unheeding in their greed, the Spaniards bought them by the bolsaful — until they discovered they had been had. Later, as if to even things a bit, the Conquistadores tried the “glass bead game” on the Indians, bartering for 600 axes they were sure were gold. “But it was a poor bargain for both,” according to the chronicler of the Spanish conquest, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, “as the axes turned out to be copper and the beads were worthless.” So, despite precios fijos and the general modernization of local business methods, the impulse to bargain is deep, enduring and undeflected here — and it benefits both the uninitiated and the long-timer to remember that fact.
A social event
While today in Guadalajara it may seem a difficult job for a visitor to find someone to bargain with, particularly around tourist-oriented or up-scale neighborhoods, in the smaller pueblos of Mexico and in the more modest barrios of this city, the art of regateando continues to thrive. Thus, it pays visitors to Mexico to be on familiar terms with this eminently practical and instructive skill. It also pays to keep in mind that bargaining here has never been a merely routine business technique. It has always been — and is — a social event, an opportunity to gather information, an occasion to consolidate self-esteem and a chance to sharpen one’s wits. And if you engage in it when you’re in a hurry or in a distracted or impatient state of mind you’re going to come out both unhappy and well shorn.