Shopping in Istanbul is a different experience to what I’m used to in Australia. At home, sales assistants greet you but mostly leave you to browse and make your own choices or leave empty handed. They may offer help and are absolutely there if you need it, but you’re generally allowed to do your own thing and can be in and out quickly.
Not so, in Istanbul. You can be treated like a celebrity if you’re willing to indulge, but if you don’t like the pressure of money-eyed shop assistants or just wanted a quick look around, then be warned…
Take A Seat
You hear about celebrities going shopping at designer stores and they close the entire store just for them. They sit down and have coffee or champagne while having the latest fashions brought to them.
Well in Istanbul, you can be that celebrity.
It was a bit surprising (and for my own tastes off-putting) when several stores – including market stalls in the Grand Bazaar – offered myself and my travel mate a seat. We just wanted to browse the shelves and you can’t actually do that from the couch at the front. It can feel rude not to accept the invitation, but if you’re pressed for time or were just taking a peek inside, then it’s probably best to decline.
Pro tip: Take a seat and you make a time investment. The sales assistant or store owner now has your time and attention and is emboldened by the possibility they are one step closer to making a sale.
Have Some Tea
Seated or not, you will commonly be offered an apple tea – a local specialty. I’m personally not a tea drinker (no seat, no tea – I am a terrible shopper in Turkey!). We were in Istanbul for only a day – I could have browsed half the bazaar in the time it took me to drink that tea.
Pro tip: if you’re not in a rush, I do hope you will accept this hospitality at least once and come away with the full, special experience of the differences of shopping in Turkey and at home.
You Big Flirt, You
I’ve come across flirtatious store assistants before, but have never been taken lovingly by the arm, walked to the front of a leather goods store and had the sales assistant ask passing cruise ship shore excursionists if we make a cute couple.
I was travelling with a girl friend and we were complimented at many stores and had a lot of male shop assistants – who are in abundance – use every technique they could think of (if you know what I mean ) to get a sale.
No Doesn’t Exist
When the stall holder or shop keeper doesn’t seem to understand the word ‘no’ (figuratively or literally) and you do actually like the wares they’re selling but don’t want to spend your precious holiday money on it, then you might find yourself with a problem.
My custom-made leather jacket selling suitor wouldn’t accept that I wasn’t going to spend €300-800 on a leather jacket. I like leather jackets but it was summer and I already had one in my over-packed suitcase – one that didn’t cost €800. But it’s alright – €800 wasn’t his final offer.
Haggle Me, Baby
If haggling is your forte then you might just walk out of the bazaar with a bargain. But be warned: haggling is also a forte for Turkish shopkeepers and stall holders and they’ve probably had a lot more practice at it than you.
Personally, I don’t like to haggle. When I travel, I feel like I’m in a more fortunate financial position than those I’m purchasing from. From my own experience, markets are hard work with a lot of financial outlay before you can break even, let alone thrive. I want to pay what the store holder thinks is fair.
But sometimes you don’t have the money to pay that fair price. Wandering through the Grand Bazaar, perusing glittering jewels, exotic spices and mesmerising Turkish lamps, we got to talking to a stall holder and popped into his stall. It was filled with beautiful cashmere scarves – very expensive cashmere scarves.
I couldn’t afford them, had reached maximum souvenir purchasing levels and only had €15 in cash for the rest of the day. I wasn’t going to haggle him down so he couldn’t afford to feed himself just so I could take home something pretty.
He showed me scarves and asked what I would pay. I didn’t want to buy one but they were gorgeous and soft and looked amazing on me. And we were only being hypothetical. He knew I wasn’t going to buy. I told him I didn’t want to undercut him. He asked how much I would pay and I said €15 was all I had – not that I would pay €15 but that I literally didn’t have any more, and I wasn’t buying a scarf anyway. He kept asking and asking, and asking, and then he finally agreed to €15.
I’ve only worn it a couple of times to be honest, but I don’t regret it. It’s a beautiful scarf.
But it certainly does make me wonder exactly how big the sales margin is on the stock at markets – and the shops in general. Surely, he wouldn’t have sold it to me at cost price or less, right?
So don’t feel bad about haggling in Istanbul. Even the leather jacket store owner (a real store, not a market stall) was willing to haggle and if you’re looking for top quality goods then you may well be able to talk them down to prices you’re happy to pay.
Pro tip: keep your wits about you and be wary of store holders who agree on one price but conveniently forget it when it comes to handing over your money. But haggle away when shopping in Istanbul – what have you got to lose?