x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

'Best price'

Feature Traversing the markets of Abu Dhabi to hone their bartering skills, two National reporters discover there are no foolproof methods to extract the best deals.

With no end in sight to the world's economic inertia, fiscal creativity is the order of the day. Traversing the markets of Abu Dhabi to hone their bartering skills, two National reporters discover there are no foolproof methods to extract the best deals.

They call it the best price; the elusive, hidden value of an item. It lies somewhere between what a shop paid for merchandise and what the price tag says it's worth. Sales assistants try to inflate it, the feistiest shoppers battle to uncover it. In January and February, shoppers will find good prices, if not the best, on a variety of goods with no effort at the Dubai Shopping Festival, which ends on February 15. However, we wondered what discounts are available to the regular consumer throughout the year - shopping festival or not. To do this, two of us embarked on a haggling expedition to see who could score the best price on everything from kingfish to DVD players, during which we picked up money-saving lessons and a host of interpersonal skills along the way.

The rules were as follows: 1. Spend Dh500 on five items, aiming to spend no more than Dh100 on each. 2. Items must be bought in the same shopping centres (or in one case, the fish market). 3. The required items: kingfish to be bought at the fish market; lamp, sunglasses and one miscellaneous item to be bought at the Hamdan Centre; and a DVD player to be bought at Mariah Mall. 4. Do whatever is needed, within the bounds of law and general ethics, to get the elusive "best price".

SURYATAPA GOT: A batch of fish for Dh57 (1.90kg/Dh30, original price: Dh35 a gram) The Fish Market at Port Zayed is one of the city's best secrets to fine dining. But sacrifices are required: one has to rise early and arrive by 8.30am to get the best deals of the day, when the fresh fish is brought in for wholesale. Then there's the smell of fish, which gets stronger the longer it stays on the stands.

I walked through a few stalls and asked the vendors to weigh the fish while we went back and forth on the price, which is set per kilogram. For the kingfish, the price varied between Dh28 and Dh35. I settled on buying about 2 kilos from a vendor at Dh30/kg because he volunteered to teach me how to look for freshness: check the gills, they should be brown and wet, and the eyes should not be glazed or cloudy.

The vendors usually include the head, which is considered a delicacy in certain cultures, though you can ask for it to be left out. They will also clean and fillet the fish. Have it cut in thick slices if you're grilling it or thinner for curries and baking. If you'd rather someone else prepare the catch, there are a number of shops in the fish market that will cook the fish. At the Al Sayad Fish Grilling Shop, I opted for a batch of charcoal grilled fish rubbed with dry spices and the rest was deep fried with a light batter for an extra Dh15, which brought my total to Dh72.

JOHN GOT: Two uncooked fish for Dh102 (3.65kg/Dh28, original price: Dh30 a gram) I decided to tour the fish stalls to gauge the average price of kingfish - the Cadillac of fresh Abu Dhabi fish, I'm told. I wanted one of the metre-plus catches (maybe to hang on my wall, as a trophy). However, I quickly realised I wouldn't stand a chance. The first stall sold kingfish at Dh30 a kilo. The seller weighed his biggest fish, which was just over 1 metre long: Dh300. I told him I could not afford the price, so he reduced it to Dh28 a kilo if I bought two small- to medium-sized ones.

I wandered around the market to find a better offer and discovered that Dh30 was the standard price for fresh kingfish caught that morning in Abu Dhabi. One stall said the price was Dh40. When I said that was ridiculous, the vendor offered me day-old Omani kingfish at Dh25 a kilo. I asked what the difference was. Poking the fish's body he said, "This is no good. It is old. Feel it." I poked the fish and compared it with a good jab at the Abu Dhabi fish. I couldn't tell the difference and moved on.

Even when I explained at other booths that someone was offering kingfish at Dh28, they wouldn't budge. "Dh27, come on!" I'd plead. I returned to the Dh28 booth, seeing if he'd drop the price again. I knew it was good rate at this point, so after a couple of minutes of bartering I bought Dh102 worth of kingfish - 3.65kg to be exact. This turned out to be a lot, especially considering I don't like fish.

SURYATAPA GOT: A handbag for Dh100 (original price: Dh215) The Hamdan Centre in Abu Dhabi is a mini version of Karama in Dubai, especially when it comes to buying cheap but good-quality handbags. A brown leather bag bought at Al Bustan Co. took at least 45 minutes of negotiations, but patience pays. As does a good personal spin: I pretended that I was on a budget set by my husband, and told the store assistant that I was only allowed to spend Dh100. I used the strategy during last-minute negotiations. If you're a man, try saying you're on a family budget and paying anything more will make things tight for the rest of the month.

JOHN GOT: A basketball for Dh80 (original price: Dh95) It was supposed to be an American football. The first place I entered, a typical non-branded sports store overflowing with too much stock, sold a quality Nike model for Dh140 and a vinyl one for Dh50. I asked for the sale assistant's best price on the Nike, which he said was Dh130. I noticed that the letters "LH" had been written on the laces in blue pen ink, so I pursued the classic damaged-goods tactic. "What's this?" I asked, thinking I had leverage. "I don't want a ball with someone's writing on it."

"That's our code," said Mustafa, the clerk, diverting my attention from the haggle. "That is the code for the buying price. Each letter stands for a number. So let's say L stands for nine and H stand for five, that means we bought it for Dh95." I took the hint: at Dh100, the store would make Dh5 in profit, a whole 50 fils of which would probably go to Mustafa if he earned a 10 per cent commission. Dh130 was probably the best I'd do. I picked up a rugby ball with the letters EPH - three letters probably meant three digits, so I left.

The even smaller Sports Palace store had no footballs but a decent selection of basketballs, ranging from Dh75 to Dh200. I singled out two standard Spalding balls, each emblazoned with an ornamental logo. The one that said "All Star" cost Dh75. The other, "Slam Dunk", was Dh95. Holding the more expensive one in my hand, I said, "How about this one for Dh75?" "But that one is Dh75, sir," said Rashid, the sales assistant, of the other one.

"I don't see any difference between the two," I said. "This is better quality," he answered, leading my hand to feel both objects. Perhaps the Slam Dunk did have a few more tiny bumps on the rubber that improve grip. "I don't think so," I said. "Dh80." With the slightest twitch of the neck he took the ball to the front counter. I guess we had a deal. I'm not sure why the two balls had different prices, but the sales assistant's failure to quantify the difference in quality certainly paid off.

SURYATAPA GOT: A big lamp for Dh100 (original price: Dh135) Crafts are one of the best bargain buys. I found a beautiful glass and iron lamp at Al Ahram Handi Crafts Store, also in the Hamdan Centre. Sales associates at most antique shops are open to bargaining, even those in malls. But before you purchase an antique lamp, which has been fitted with an electrical outlet, make sure you test the circuit first. JOHN GOT: A smaller lamp for Dh100 (original price: Dh120) Suryatapa and I happened to bump into each other in the Hamdan Centre before both entering Al Ahram Handi Crafts Store for a lamp. For this one, we decided to work simultaneously, and the tag-team approach succeeded. She started bargaining with the shop assistant about some lamps at the front of the store and I moved towards the back. While they bickered, I grabbed a lamp that was smaller than hers for Dh120. Back at the front of the shop, I interrupted her and the assistant, asking whether I could have the lamp for Dh90. This seemed to catch the man off guard. He stuttered, checked the lamp's price tag and said "Dh115". "Dh95," I responded. We settled at Dh100. Suryatapa, however, got the best of him. She managed to buy a nicer lamp, priced at Dh135, for Dh100.

SURYATAPA GOT: A pair for Dh110 (original price: Dh150) I am wary of buying cheap sunglasses, which may not come with adequate UV protective coating, but that is not to say a bargain can't be found at Rivera Gift at the Hamdan Centre. In this case, I borrowed Dh100 from John because all I had was a Dh500 bill. There's nothing like blowing your cover when, before winning over your item, you've claimed to be on a tight budget only to pull out a big bill to pay for your purchase. JOHN GOT: A pair for Dh100 (original price: Dh200) The slightly too small Genesis glasses were the bargain of the day, as long as the manager, Ali, wasn't having me on. Immediately upon entering New Asia Opticals, he said everything in the shop was 30 per cent off - a great offer, except that everything on display cost more than Dh300. I went for the honest approach, which had been recommended in some of the haggling guides I had read. "I only have Dh100. What can I get for Dh100?" I said. Ali led me to a small display case filled with brands I hadn't heard off. At first he picked up a Diesel pair, the only brand I recognised, and said Dh100. Surprised at the generosity, I said yes. But then Ali realised his mistake - it is quite rare for clerks to offer discounts on branded items because prices are set by distributors. He apologised and pointed out that the non-branded items were Dh100. Ali said that was the best price because the Genesis sunglasses were usually Dh225. There was no price tag, but he insisted and looked offended when I suggested he might be misleading me. I asked another shop assistant if Dh100 was a good price, and she said yes, because they usually sell for at least Dh200. I felt pretty good, but my pride took a hit later when I searched online to price the sunglasses. The only mention of Genesis sunglasses I found was at an auction website, where a woman was selling a different style for $10.

SURYATAPA GOT: One for Dh100 (original price: Dh120) For electronics and gaming equipment, including games, try the Al Mariah shopping centre on Hamdan Street. I purchased a DVD player at Al Sahra Electronics, where goods are already marked down and they are open to some bargaining. JOHN GOT: One for Dh85 (original price: Dh100) Surya grabbed the only DVD player in Mariah Mall nearing our Dh100 limit, so I had to move on to Madinat Zayed where there was another branch of the Al Sahra shop. Inside, I was tired of haggling, so I was relieved to find there was the same DVD player for Dh100. "Dh70?" I asked. The clerk laughed. I almost left. "Dh90," he said. "Dh80," I shot back. We split the difference at Dh85 and I left. At the end of it all, John saved Dh14 on kingfish, Dh15 on the basketball, Dh100 on the sunglasses (if we are to believe the second sales assistant), Dh20 on the lamp and Dh15 on the DVD player - Dh164 in total. However, if John got what he paid for on the sunglasses, then this final is reduced to a paltry Dh64. Suryatapa saved Dh9.50 on the kingfish, Dh115 on the purse, Dh35 on the lamp, Dh40 on the sunglasses and Dh20 on the DVD player - Dh229.50 in total. With or without the sunglasses, she appears to have out-haggled John. But that's the problem with haggling, of course: there is no way to determine how much effort will lead to the best price.