Mike Kamins who works as EVP North America at The Gap Partnership considered himself a pretty skillful negotiator. But a visit to a Moroccan souk with his wife showed how emotion can derail even the most embedded of negotiation principles.
Let me tell you about my wife. She’s more intelligent than I am – brighter, more creative and imaginative. She’s also more thoughtful and caring, more well-rounded and polished. She has a knack for finding the beauty in people. (And homewares). I mean, you marry up in life, right? I succeeded. But I fancy myself a decent negotiator, and if forced to pick between the two of us, I’d venture that I might stand a bit taller in the world of commercial negotiation. Bear all of this in mind as I now relay for you a story. My wife and I moved to the UK from America on 1st March 2017. Among the many exciting opportunities this continental shift allowed, nothing was more thrilling than the ability to travel outside the fifty states to faraway, magical places. Fast forward to February 2018, and the best laid plans... Apart from work trips to a few places in the UK, Sarah and I had only taken one real trip together since moving to London. That was to Paris – not so far and not so away, albeit magical. For all the allure of its stylish bars and warm baguettes, having been a few times prior, we yearned to go somewhere new. Somewhere with mystique and panache, somewhere rife with excitement and perhaps just a bit of danger. Somewhere with...a kiddie pool. (Yep, I have a nearly 3-year-old, my right hand man. If you’re thinking, “why bring him?”, then that conversation is for another day). We chose the wonders of Marrakesh.
Africa seemed pretty damn exciting, not to mention a great shopping opportunity. As longtime design mavens (well, in any case, Architectural Digest subscribers), Sarah and I had longed for a real Moroccan carpet that was not mass produced and retailed by the likes of Pottery Barn. Not only did this destination cover exotic and magical, it was also a consumer savvy selection. With the picturesque Atlas Mountains as our background, we embarked on our adventure where we were soon to learn that food tastes fresher than at my local Whole Foods, riding a camel is commonplace for some but thrilling for others (me), cabbies chatter in English until bartering the fare, and negotiating for everything from carpets to trinkets in souks was each day’s mission. All in all, this seemed a perfect trip. On our third day, we decided our son deserved a holiday of his own (read: a morning in kids club at the hotel), and off we went, two naïve Americans, seeking out the joys and challenges of the souk. We prepped – oh man, did we prep. Sarah and I had discussed on the flight over that we sometimes make decisions emotionally, and that our impending carpet purchasing opportunity should be strategic.
“Negotiation should not be driven by emotion,” I advised Sarah wisely, adding that a successful negotiator can “read the other party’s body language and adjust accordingly, shifting the other party’s behavior to our benefit.” My wife nodded, confirmed that she understood, and was ready to see me in action. To say I was supremely confident would be an overstatement. But equally, to say I was eager would be a supreme understatement.
Having been warned of the men with the monkeys on their shoulders, relentlessly seeking out dirham for picture opportunities, I gave Sarah a firm and final warning as we stepped out of the cab: “There’s no need to be your normal lovely, polite, engaging self. Although we’ll be pleasant, we (you) can be firm with these folks and say ‘no’.” We made it at least ten feet. Sarah grasped the first outstretched hand positioned her way, sweetly saying, “Good morning!” The uncomfortable sensation was immediate. An animal we had only ever experienced from the other side of a cage was now sitting on her shoulder. Many hundreds of dirham later and a beautiful picture or two, we made our way into the winding alleys of the inner souk, minus the monkey. Rarely do things in life meet or exceed expectations.
In this case, the souk was exactly as imagined, and even more thrilling. We wended our way through the vast sea of vendors, each saying their prices could be less than usual for us because we were “the first customer of the day, which is good luck!” We smiled knowingly at each other. What marvelous good fortune, huh? Who knew that of the hundreds of locals and tourists meandering through, we were the first people purchasing anything, at any kiosk, from any vendor?
We had an agenda, a plan – and a potty-training kid at kids club that we needed to get back to relatively quickly – so we hurriedly went deeper into the winding stalls, seeking out the carpet that would bring happiness (and style) to our lives, and our home.
As is often the case, things happened in an instant. A man befriended us and we were led hand-in-hand through countless purveyors of distinct weaves and blends. We fast-stepped by vibrant reds, greens, and blues through a door that felt much too small to enter, deep into a shop that felt much too large to ever exit. Ceilings and staircases beautifully crafted, rich with the skilled designs of a master Thuya manipulator, surrounded the most fantastic array of carpets we’d ever seen. In truth, there must have been thousands.
As mint tea was offered, not accepted, yet poured and sipped, Sarah and I were taken on a shopping, or rather, a spending experience like none other. After what felt like close to an hour (twelve minutes or so), we found the size, style, and look we (she) wanted.
Now it was my turn. The stage light shone down on me, and my job as “Chief Negotiator” began. Armed with an M.Sc. in Negotiations, a career of successful outcomes, and six years working for TGP, I was ready. The music started, and the dance begun. “$600“, said the man with the engaging smile.
“No thanks”, I said, careful not to mention the number so as not to give it credibility. “Listen friend, we’ve only just arrived at the souk, so we’ll go take a look at other vendors and come back.” Clearly he had heard this line (and every other line) before. He now exchanged engaging for a bit of mischievous, and the smile signaled our move from ‘waltz’ to ‘swing’. Back and forth we swayed, two professionals at work, trading tactics and techniques as we continued along the price narrative. As we steered towards $300, I thought we were finally getting somewhere. Cue our demise. It wasn’t her fault. In truth it was no one’s fault. It creeps up on you, and before you know it, that sneaky fella named emotion jumps out. “That sounds fair. We could put it on credit!”, came innocently from Sarah’s lips. Let’s be clear, I was also thinking it.
Quicker than a blink, he had us. Perceived power swung across the negotiation Clockface, and my talent took a backseat to my bemusement. My skilled friend moved away from the 60-40 split of attention he had with us and went 90-10 hard. Sarah was now the object of his affection. One carpet became “a deal” at two, and $300 now became his “best and final”. As if there ever is, or was, such a thing I’ll save you the outcome in order to protect my ego and marriage, but do know one thing. You may arm yourself with impeccable skill, immense learning, and professional tools and tactics in negotiation. However, none of them holds a candle to the raw human emotion you feel when negotiating for something that your loved one (and you) desperately wants. Whether or not I got that price under $300 is not the lesson here. The lesson here is we bought an authentic, Beni Ourain carpet from Morocco, and damn if it doesn’t make Sarah smile. Me too, of course.
Whether the juice was worth the squeeze? Well, I sure think so. I’d have paid so much more for the smile.
How to haggle in the souk
THE MORE YOU SAY, THE MORE YOU GIVE AWAY
The number one watch-out in negotiation is talking too much. When faced with an uncomfortable situation like silence, people have the tendency to fill the gap. The rug seller doesn’t need to know that you’ve already imagined where the rug will go in your house, or that you might have space on a credit card for the purchase. Sharing information of this nature diminishes your strength within the situation, making it harder to stand firm on price.
If the intention is to negotiate, why open with the exact amount of money you will pay or accept? Instead open lower than the expected cost. When you do this, three things happen. Firstly, you shift the expectations of the seller, i.e. you may alter their initial thoughts – in a downward direction – about how much you will be prepared to pay. Second, you do so to give a bit of it away. Yes, you heard right! You’ll be able to show concessions in price (albeit in a planned way) in order to invoke the Law of Reciprocity. Third, you are testing the assumption of the seller’s breakpoint. Your ability to gauge their behavioral reaction can, and often does, allow for you to maximize more of the deal. (Although bear in mind the average souk-stall owner in Morocco is a master of the flinch!).
GET YOUR NUMBER DOWN FIRST
Often, allowing the other party to speak their number first is considered good negotiating, and this might be appropriate at times. People reason that this allows them to play off of the initial proposal and therefore determine their move plan. However, if you allow the stall owner to go first, you have inadvertently allowed them to gain ‘home field advantage’, and risk having your initial proposal altered based on their perceived expectations. Try putting your number on the table first and then watch for the behavioral cues that determine if they are able to meet your position. Skilled negotiators lead, they rarely follow.
Make your initial proposal and prepare for a counter proposal. When it comes, try not moving off of your price, instead utilize silence. Then reiterate your position and allow for silence to again take over. After some time has passed, begrudgingly (and with a set plan) begin to move in ever decreasing amounts. Anchoring your position can lead to more advantageous deals, as well as removing the generosity that significant and numerous moves shows within a hard bargaining situation. Always remember, people value things that are hard to obtain. Make them work for it. In Morocco, that’s all part of the fun!