Like many freshly-minted Australians, my parents’ friends, the Ducs, have a healthy respect for money. They’re not afraid to shop around. Their daughter and I used to be fairly close—we went to Vietnamese school together—so I got to tag along when her mum took her computer shopping.
We traipsed from Donvale to Springvale, from Harvey Norman to the corner tech shop. Her mum wasn’t content with comparing price stickers; she’d wring out profit margins from the sales assistants, before making a move on the manager. After the third or fourth store, my friend was begging her to stop. I wriggled in my seat, equally mortified. Haggling and bargain-hunting, I thought, was something our parents did. It was so very un-Australian. I’d rather eat stinky shrimp paste than make a beeline for the sales rack of any clothing store.
But how can something so universal be considered un-Australian?
In developing parts of the world, haggling is a customary part of selling or buying. If you don’t attempt to bargain, not only will you end up paying ten times more than necessary, you’ll also invite ridicule. In societies where destitution is a real threat, the ability to haggle indicates that you are financially savvy and worthy of respect. If you can’t (or won’t) haggle, then you’re either a) a sucker who deserves to be conned out of their last dollar, b) too rich to care about money, or c) all of the above.
In a first-world country like Australia, however, haggling is nearly nonexistent. In its place is a system of predetermined prices for goods and services. For many, the convenience of such prices offsets the monetary value lost from not haggling. Hence, to haggle outside of socially acceptable circumstances is seen as peculiar if not taboo.
As a kid, I instinctively knew that haggling would make me stick out, so I rejected it in the same way I rejected fish-sauce-flavoured pork terrine sandwiches. As an adult, I still carry a vestigial aversion towards any overt form of bargain-hunting. Only a post-GFC, thrift-friendly climate, that I’ve begun to recognise haggling, etc. for what they are: tools for the smart shopper. Used appropriately, they can be of great help.
Perhaps one day, I’ll wear my bargain-hunting, price-shopping, haggling badge with pride. Until then, I’ll just smile awkwardly at the staff in Country Road (not Chapel Street GASP, thankfully) and inch towards the sales section one overpriced shirt at a time.