Monday, August 8, 2011

GUATEMALA 2011: (9) How To Negotiate in a Street Market

How many times can you say no? I had already said no to 4 little boys. This was not an easy task. I travel very light, and have only the pair of shoes that are on my feet--my boots. The boots were covered in concrete from our work the day before.

"Would you like your shoes shined?" I responded no, and he lowered his asking price. Again, I responded no. He lowered his price. This was getting tough, but I was resolved. This were my work boots, the same boots that I wore a year ago...and they were covered with dirt and concrete. So I said "no" again.

He lowered his price even further and I held steady. He walked away. I felt really guilty. This fella was small, and very young. I wondered how dependent he was on the money he made shining shoes. I figured the answer was somewhere between entirely and desperately.

I felt a tug on my sleeve and startled, I turned.

"Don't you want your shoes shined? I will shine them for 3Q." This was his lowest price yet. I said, "no thank you, I do not need them shined." He looked at me with an expression of disbelief, raised on eyebrow and made a crooked grin, looked down at my boots and then looked up with me with an expression that seemed to say, "are you serious?"

I said no-thank you as I walked away from him a second time. Seriously, there are thousands of people around here... surely he can go shine someone else's shoes. I don't need a shoe shining.

As I walked over to where the others in the group were sitting on a curb, observing this exchange, I heard one of them say, "you might as well let him shine your shoes."

Well...that did it. I was already feeling conflicted about it, and by now I was imagining him returning back to his home feeling rejected and incapable. I have felt that way myself.

I went and found him and now I asked him, "would you like to shine my shoes?" Would you beleive his price went up? I laughed as he said, "10 Q." I responded, "well, ok...if you think you can, they are covered in concrete." He said, "I can."

I'd say my expression pretty much says it all...

And so we made our way to the curb where I sat down and placed a boot on his mobile work bench (a nifty carrying case that doubled as a shine stand.) He then said, "you want them polished?" When I replied, "yes" he said, 15Q."

"We agreed to 10!" He replied, "10 for clean. 15 for clean and polish." I couldn't help but life. I knew I was being manipulated, but I was charmed by his charisma. I have been a hiring manager and a trainer for some time and I wish I could find this type of ambition in the folks I encounter in that role.

And so, I said "yes." I had successfully now negotiated the price of my shoe shine from 3Q to 15Q. As he began his work I reached into my pocket and pulled out the first bill I felt. It was a 20Q. He then smiles and says, "I will wax for 20."

I was already amazed by his speed and his thoroughness. The concrete was removed from both boots already and he had applied a conditioner to the leather. His small hands moved like machinery. They were stained and strong from his labor. I have had professional shoe shines in the past in some nice sort of places. This small boy was shining my shoes better than anyone else I had ever witnessed. I spent a summer as a shoe salesman myself, and I had been trained in shoe care. This kid was incredible. I suppose it necessary. There was a lot of competition in that square, and I am sure he was told "no" more than he was told "yes."

And so, with a genuine smile on my face, I successfully negotiated an even higher price for my shine. 20Q.
At this point another team member sat down beside us and began to take a photograph. I was looking at the money in my hand and I unfolded the 20Q bill. A 5Q that had been folded inside was now visible to both me and my temporary employee.

Without missing a beat, he turned to both of us and said, "you take picture, it cost 5Q more." We laughed and he continued his work. He had cleaned, conditioned, shined, and waxed my boots. He now removed a fifth product from his box and began shining the black rubber soles of the boots. I told him, "I have 25Q in my hand and it is your payment."

This was my un-wanted, un-needed shoe shine deal for 3Q that I had successfully bartered to pay over 8 times that amount!

The boots looked incredible. I walked over to the group and Fontaine inquired how much I had paid. I told him, he passed that info on to Edgar... and Edgar howled with laughter! He told me that I made a nice donation to that boy.

And so now, of course... I felt a bit foolish. Here I was, the big gullible, bleeding-heart American who had been bested by a kid on the street. I thought to myself, his English was even pretty good... I bet that boy does just fine manipulating people like me.

I still had to smile though... because the entire exchange had been amusing, entertaining, and enjoyable. His personality and charm were equal to the masterful job he had completed. I figured he earned every bit of it... even if I did overpay him.

And then, I wondered how much I had overpaid him. The last time I had my shoes shined, it cost me $10, in a Boston airport. Oh, plus tip.

So, I did the mental calculation converting 25 Quetzels to U.S. Dollars.

I had just had the shoe-shine of my life (these boots had been covered with CONCRETE and now they shined like patent leather.) I then calculated his original asking price of 3Q.

38 cents.

My perspective on this interchange shifted yet again.
I am so glad I finally said, "yes."

If you ever find yourself in the square at Antigua, find the small boy with the big smile and work-worn hands.
And when you do... negotiate up.

I paid 5Q for this picture. It is worth FAR MORE.


  1. Thank you, Chad, for helping me to feel like I'm there. And thank you for saying YES to that boy!

  2. Wow! What a touching story, I hope you all are having a wonderful trip-we're praying for you!