As a major competitor in the sport of shopping, I attest that there are few arenas in the world that present you with the true thrill of the purchase quite like the traditional “Open Air Market”, although, yes, some are technically enclosed now. Arriving as the away team to a stadium full of local vendors, no matter where you are in the world you’re always the underdog, so it makes the victory of the purchase that much greater!
Realizing my knack for this sport at the young age of 12 years old, when I began going to Cancun with my family in the early 90’s, where I first entered Mercado 28 in the downtown area, off of the hotel zone. Here was the place that my mother and older cousin would take me if they had their eye on a piece of silver jewelry or a pottery item and wanted a really great price, as I’d handle the negotiation process. Year after year, we’d return in the summers and no matter who was in town with us, we always made at least 1 trip downtown to Mercado 28, with yours truly acting as the guide.
Many years later, as I’ve visited markets the world over, I look back at my days being known as “La Rubia” by the vendors in Cancun and smile with the knowledge that I gained in my formative years of shopping. My friends and family who now travel with me, still rely on my bargaining to get them the best possible price, and now we just have one rule, they don’t speak, well, not to the vendors at least, and I know their budgets in advance.
In a sport where a little planning will get you a long way, here are my tips for becoming a champion of shopping in Open Air Markets, as well as a nod to a few of my favorites around the world.
- Plan ahead! – Always know what type of merchandise you’re looking for from the beginning. In the realm of knockoffs and junk, you don’t want to get caught up in these distractions, as time is of the essence to find your treasure
- Have a budget! – Create your max spend for each item and stick to it, but allow for a few low cost unique finds.
- Look the part! – Knowing that these areas are not exactly Rodeo Drive, no need to pack on the fine jewelry and designer duds, it’s best to dress more unassumingly as it helps in the negotiation process, and remember to bring your own large shopping bag that can close and conceal your already purchased merchandise. The more vendor bags that you’re carrying, the more obvious that you’re willing to spend money.
- Keep your eyes peeled! Yes, in these parts where often stolen goods can be found as some of the merchandise, you’ll most likely encounter a few thieves mixing in with the opposing team. Keep your hand on your wallet and shopping bag at all times.
- Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate!!!! Probably the word most frequently used in this article, but if you have any desire to shop in these Markets, you need to be a negotiator, or have someone on your team who is. If you’re opting for the team approach, make sure that you clearly discuss your max spend per item with your negotiator before entering the market. The modern vendor speaks many languages and has mastered the art of deciphering whispers, so it does you no good to discuss finances in their presence. Oh, and the key to negotiating, as the purchaser, is the art of the “walk away”. If the vendor comes after you, it will only be for a lower price.
Go ahead and give your skills a try in any of these markets when you’re in their town. Spring training is right around the corner, so time to get in shape for shopping season!
- The Grand Bazaar (Kapalicarsi) Istanbul – My absolute favorite arena in the world’s stage of markets.Here, the quality to junk ratio is high and you can find a great selection of fine jewelry, leather goods, Turkish lanterns, carpets and other beautiful handicrafts.
- El Rastro in Madrid – A weekend outdoor market that is a great place to find antiques and handicrafts. El rastro also has a significant seedy side, as it was the first market where I purchased a “second hand” aka “stolen” bike in my life. Here, often the great finds go early, so its worth while to arrive by 9:00 am.
- Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, Thailand – The mother of open air markets in sheer size alone, but come to Chatuchak with a plan of attack, otherwise you could end up spending hours winding in and out of lanes of junk. My suggestion is to enter at Gate 2, near the arts and handicrafts section where you can find one of a kind accessories, pieces of art and even some unique locally designed apparel finds. Heart & Soul III and Handicraft Vaniche are two must see vendors.
- Eastern Market in Washington, DC – This primarily indoor market is a great place to grab a bite any day of the week, but Saturday afternoons, when the weather permits, there are numerous local artists, jewelry designers and artisans selling their goods on the sidewalk market that expands outside. Across the street, Eastern Market expands into a vacant parking lot where many local antiques dealers set up stands, so arrive early great vintage records or furniture.
- San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale in Florence – Another great market that inside is primarily food vendors and stalls, but surrounding the exterior is a fantastic selection of leather goods vendors. Here you can have a leather jacket custom tailored for about the same price as a mass-market retailer in the States.
- The Gold Souk in Dubai – Whether you’re in the market for gold and gems at a good price or just looking to be dazzled by the golden glow of such extreme lavishness, the Gold Souk is a sight to see. Within the windows you’ll find some of the largest pieces of jewelry you’ve ever seen as well as “The World’s Heaviest Gold Ring” certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.