The mercados (markets) of Mexico may be a very different experience to what many Western people expect from the markets back home. Those used to the ability to wander around speaking to no-one, looking at shops with fixed prices on their items, will find themselves in a different world. This is not how it's done in Mexico.
The mercados may be in a static location, Mercado 23 and Mercado 28 in Cancún spring to mind; or they may be ad hoc ones, which set up for the day then completely disappear at night, like those around the Mayan archaeological sites. Either way, they work the same.
This is undoubtedly the place to test out haggling skills. This is the Mexican way in markets. You will be approached constantly on the street and invited into shops to see the merchandise. If you take up the offer, then this is where the fun begins. You may be given something free, like a shot of tequila, to win your interest. Their first offer will probably be up to twice as much as the item is worth. Your job is to do your maths and state a price much less than the item's value. This is a competition and a battle of wills. You will probably be told many stories to encourage you to buy or to raise your price. If your price does remain way too low, then they will refuse to sell it to you. It's a case of forming your strategy, going in prepared for a period of haggling and paying only what you're comfortable paying. Along the way, you will have taken part in an aspect of Mexican culture and will definitely have stories to tell back home.
Places like Mercado 28 should be entered with a hunter's spirit. None of it is aggressive, so the expectation that the best haggler wins will make every good purchase feel like a winner's trophy. Those who are happier with their native culture of fixed prices would be better placed at Flamingo Plaza, which caters more to tourists. Those with the knack of haggling return to Mercado 28 time and time again, reporting that it is a lot of fun. They also report that it's the cheapest place in the city, once the correct price has been settled. For those used to the souks of Marrakech, this market will seem tame; for those more at home in passive Western hypermarkets, it will be shopping at its wildest. The question is, are you up for the challenge?
Winners arm themselves with information. Here are your tips on how to haggle for goods at the mercado.
1, Know your prices first. If you are after a certain item, then shop around in the big stores before you go to the mercado. Then you can judge what is a fair price and when you are getting a bargain. This also forestalls the shock of finding it cheaper in the plaza next to your hotel.
2, If anyone in your party speaks Spanish, then this is the perfect moment to use those skills. A Spanish speaker automatically gets a slightly lower price, mainly because the seller isn't being forced to haggle in a second (or third, if Mayan) language. So don't let your Spanish speaker lounge by the pool, you need them at the mercado.
3, Change your money into pesos first. Find out the exchange rate for that day, so you know, in advance, precisely how much the peso is worth. While in the mercado, pay only in pesos (you'll get it cheaper), though most vendors will take crisp American dollars. An American dollar which is crumpled or torn might be turned away, while foreign small change will definitely be unacceptable. It is better by far to pay in cash and for that cash to be pesos.
4, Do not take your credit card. While most mercado stores will take credit cards, you may have a shock when you get home, to discover that the amount charged is higher than expected. Most vendors are very honest, but you might not be able to distinguish from them the occasional bad egg, who might be very inventive with the exchange rate.
5, Take your own calculator. You will be dealing with people who do complicated mathematics all day long. They will demonstrate their figures at lightning speed on their own calculators. You have no way of knowing if those calculators have been 'fixed', especially in regard to the exchange rate. Remember that their aim in this game is to receive as much money as possible, while yours is to pay as little as possible. Therefore make sure that you're the one armed with the calculator and that you use it to check your own figures.
6, Pick your time. The best bargains are to be gained at closing time at the attractions; or the beginning of the day at the static mercados. Those selling at the attractions often have to cart all of their stuff home again on their backs or on bicycles, so they would rather sell it to you instead. Those selling in the mercados have the advantage of leaving their stock on site or else driving away in vehicles. There is, however, a superstition that the first sale of the day bodes well for the rest of it, therefore they will be more inclined to bargain in your favour then.
Entering the Mercado
1, If someone calls out, '1 dollar! 1 dollar!', then they usually mean a Mayan dollar. This is roughly $10 USD.
2, If you do not wish to buy nor be enticed into a shop, then a polite, 'no gracias', coupled with walking on by will usually work just fine. For really persistent vendors, then there have been reports that saying, 'yo vivo a key' (I live here) will make them lose interest. This is also helped if you look casual and not so 'touristy' at the time. In their minds, local people more likely to know how drive a hard bargain for items, while the rich foreigners will pay well over the odds, as they don't know how to play the game.
3, Always remain polite and light-hearted. You won't be having fun, if you let yourself feel beseiged; and they aren't deliberately being rude. The more harassed that you look, the greater the neon sign above your head flashes, 'foreigner who doesn't know what to do!' and the more interest vendors will take in you.
Preparing to Buy
1, Fix your price in your head, while you ask for the vendor's price. Never let on what you are initially prepared to pay.
2, Vendors will be prepared for a 25% discount on their goods. Whatever price you are offered, deduct 25% and that is what you're reasonably aiming for. At the Mercado 28, you can deduct 50%.
3, Never let on when you have a price you're willing to pay, if it seems the vendor will go lower.
4, Feign disinterest if the price quoted is too high. Walking away will often lower a price instantly.
5, Watch out for your non-verbal signs. It's no good saying, 'no, I'm not interested', when your eyes are glinting with want.
6, Be prepared for a long period of haggling, but remain polite and light-hearted.
7, If the price remains too high for you, then walk away completely. You are under no obligation to buy, no matter how many glasses of tequila you've been given, nor what sob stories you've been told. They won't respect you in the morning for giving into the drama now.
8, If the price remains too low for them, then they are equally under no obligation to sell to you. If you've hit a brick wall, then that is their lowest price and they do have a livelihood to make. This isn't a charity event.
9, Once you have agreed on a price, work out via your own knowledge and mathematics what that is in your native currency. If you're happy with that, then pay in pesos and pat yourself on the back for a successfully haggled bargain!
A final word about the mercados at the Mayan archaeological ruins. At some places, like Tulúm, the mercado is outside the gates and could be avoided if desired. At others, like Chichén Itzá, the inner pathways are lined with sellers. There is a reason for this. The villages around Chichén Itzá are exclusively Mayan, but also very poor. When the ruins were opened up for tourism, these people watched distant owners and tour operators getting very rich on the proceeds, but none of it was trickling into the local community. In the grip of poverty, these people argued that all of this was being done around their own ancestral buildings and artifacts, dispossessing them in the process. After a prolonged struggle for justice, they earned the right to set up their mercado inside the ruins. Everyone you see selling items inside the ruins will be a local Mayan villager, as no-one else is allowed to do so.