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Did I get ripped off?

Before you get too concerned, if your purchase is intended to help someone poor, you really can’t get ripped off. That is, if you buy something for Q75 and discover later than you could have haggled the price down to Q70, you can feel better if you think of that extra pound of beans or corn you just bought for a family. This article is really about doing the right thing rather than on how to be a cheapskate.

Street prices and store prices

Quetzel keychain from street vendor.

Quetzel keychain from street vendor.

The keychain in the photo is a good example to use for the discussion. While a quetzal is more common, you will see other birds. The common prices I have seen are Q10 in stores and Q5 on the street. My assumption is that if I was not a known personality in Pana, the street price would start at Q10. The store price may be somewhat negotiable but it is unlikely you will be able to buy just one of these items for much less than Q10. Bottom line is that the store has overhead.

Of course, the street vendor has overhead as well but, in general, it is lower. This item is pretty common and my assumption is that they are all made by the same people or company. If, however, the vendor is making the product themself, they have a big advantage.

As an example, there is man who sells bags and other things made from local material with a street booth in Calle Santander. He has a treadle sewing machine and when he is not actively selling something, he is making something else to sell. Locally made, a chance for a custom product and very low overhead. Something to look for.

Should I leave a tip?

First, look at the bill. Maybe you already did. More and more places seem to be adding a tip, commonly labeled service or PV (for propina voluntaria) to the bill. Every time I have seen this, it has been about 10%. For example, if the bill was Q65, the PV would be Q6. I have never seen it over 10%.

I think the second part of the question is about what is expected. In general, businesses that are catering to local (non-Gringo) clients are less likely to expect tips. For example, a low-end comedor run by a family generally doesn’t expect to see a tip. For me, this is the kind of place where I am most likely to leave one. Generally, I do this buy telling them that they can keep the change.

What about food prices?

If you are in a regular restaurant, don’t expect food prices to be negotiable. The same is also true when buying in a grocery store. But, you may have some options when buying in the public market.

First, there is local competition. As local as less than a meter away. Thus, if two people are selling avocados that look equivalent, it is likely the price will be the same. If they don’t start out the same, you should be able to negotiate. No surprise there.

Becoming a good customer is, however, the most important way to save. Once you find who you consider the best avocado or broccoli vendor, return to them. Make them remember you. For a Gringo with a big white beard this is easy but if you don’t stand out, mentioning that you were very happy with whatever you bought from her last week will help a lot.

This relationship may start out pretty basic. For example, one vendor gave me 13 bananas for the price of 12 and made it clear to me that she had included an extra. It may also mean they will save the biggest avocados for you or some such. In any case, it works.

On the other hand, you will sometimes get Gringo prices. For example, I was told by one vendor that his papayas cost Q10. I found one I liked and bought it. As I was stuffing it in my backpack, a non-Gringo asked him the price of papayas and he said “Q8”. OK, fine, next time I will buy my papayas from another vendor.

Note that good Spanish skills are not required to be a good public market shopper. It certainly helps if you can count to say 20 in Spanish but even that isn’t essential. What is essential is to be a good observer and willing to take some time. For example, in the case of my papaya purchase, I could have just watched and waited. The real price would have come out in a transaction with a non-Gringo and I would have been ready to pick the one I wanted and hand him Q8.

Shopping suggestions

When you are shopping on the street or in the public market, here are some considerations. Not hard and fast rules but some things to think about.

  • You are expected to bargain. Even if you don’t want to, you need to in order to gain respect.
  • Always have change. Haggling over 1-2 quetzales in the price of a Q10 item when all you have is a Q100 bill doesn’t put you in a position of strength.
  • On market trips go with a local. For example, ofter to pay for a TukTuk on the return trip if your neighbor goes shopping with you.
  • If you don’t have a neighbor handy, ask a kid hanging out near the market to help. Let them do the negotiation.
  • If you are an established regular customer with one vendor and you want something she doesn’t have, ask her for a suggestion where to get it.

In general, I have found vendors to be fair. The Gringo/non-Gringo price differences tend to be small and I actually seldom experience them. The most important thing is to know what the typical value of something is before you get into the transaction. This is generally easy in the market where you can just watch and listen before you start buying. In other situations, deciding what something is worth to you before you get involved in a transaction is a good approach. Sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised when the vendor asks half of what you would have been willing to pay.

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