Street vendors and supermarkets

Geetha Durairajan

A few days ago I was on my way home for lunch when I saw a woman selling oranges by the roadside not far from my house and next to her was a man selling unshelled peanuts. I stopped to buy some oranges and was told that a dozen oranges would cost me Rs. 120. Since only a week ago oranges had cost me even more I agreed to pay that price and asked for a dozen. Next to me two other people were busy haggling with the lady and trying to bring the cost down. With a lot of bargaining and haggling, they succeeded in bringing the cost down to Rs. 110 for a dozen oranges! I thought to myself, “What castle are these people going to build with the ten rupees that they have ‘supposedly’ saved, and do our street vendors also not have to buy the same rice and dhal? With the cost of living the way it is, how much profit can they actually make?” But I didn’t say anything, for these two people were just passersby on the road and I had no right to force my opinion on them!

I handed over two notes to the lady, a 100 and a 50, for I didn’t have change and I had agreed to pay Rs. 120. She took the money, gave me a dozen oranges in the ubiquitous plastic bag, and discreetly returned Rs. 50 to me, along with a very meaningful look and a smile. The smile said it all: you didn’t bargain and accepted what I ‘quoted’; most people who buy from us vendors expect or want to bargain so I hike the price, but my real selling price is only a … so! I gave her a thank you smile in acknowledgement and then moved to the peanut seller and asked him how much I could get and what it would cost me. He had a smallish measure that looked as though it would hold about 300 ml, and said that for Rs. 20 he would give me one of those. I agreed and asked for two measures. I gave him the Rs. 50 note that I had got back from my orange seller and asked him to put in more peanuts for the Rs. 10 balance, for he, poor chap, did not have any change! Apparently, I was the first person that day to buy something from him; in vendor parlance, his ‘boni’.

This roadside vendor, who buys his goods in the wholesale market, sells it and ekes out a living did something equally interesting; he put in the half measure, and then, after having caught my eye, with a smile, added another handful as though to say, ‘that is for accepting my word and not bargaining.’ This was in spite of the fact that he had been sitting on a pavement for two hours and had just made his first sale!

These are two very small and quite unimportant incidents; they are what, I am sure, many other people have experienced but they got me thinking. In the end, compared to the two people who haggled over the price of a dozen oranges, I paid less and for what it is worth, got more peanuts too, but that is not the point here. We need to visualize a different scenario at this point – of us shopping in a supermarket or a shop that states its selling price on a piece of paper that is stuck to the merchandize! Even if those oranges had been priced at Rs. 150 or more, we would never contemplate ‘haggling’ with the sales people there. We may decide not to buy them because they are too expensive, but bargaining would be unheard of in a supermarket!

What is it that makes us want to bargain with the poor vendor on the roadside? If we think about it, the profits that the vendor makes goes directly to him or her and hopefully helps a wee bit in getting some food into the stomachs of that family that night. The profits on oranges sold by any supermarket have a whole lot of overheads built into it. We all know that supermarkets use the maximum estimated price as a point of reference and do not always ‘price’ on actual costs. By contrast, most street vendors add a profit margin (their only ‘income’ for they are not salaried employees) to their wholesale ‘buying’ price!

What is it about the printed word and an establishment (with a building and shelves and counters and all the other paraphernalia) that makes us not bargain? And by contrast, what is it about the vendor on the road, with their simple baskets or push carts and simple clothes that makes us want to do so?

We assume that the vendor on the road is out to ‘get us’ and that all of them will always ‘up’ their price and that therefore we must bargain. How much do we really save by this ‘bargaining I wonder? Very little! Are we going to build a home if not a castle with the saved money? Never! But bargain we definitely do!

In the end, we actually end up paying a wee bit more than we would have if we ‘trusted’ the vendor to quote a fair price. Over the years, I have made it a rule for myself that I will never bargain with a street vendor; I also have a policy that given a choice I will buy from vendors and not from supermarkets, just to ensure that the people who eke out an existence are still able to do so.

My experience with the oranges is only a sample. Every time I buy something from a roadside vendor (flowers, vegetables, fruits) I always get a fair deal. I never have to ask, but once they realize that I am not going to bargain, the cost is automatically reduced or an extra piece of fruit added to the bag. We are always ready to ‘trust’ the little piece of paper with a printed price (placed by a retailer in a supermarket with all its overheads) but not the vendor braving the wind and the sun and the rain who is eking out a living!

The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at gdurairajan@gmail.com.