Shopping in Algeria is an art. Typically, it is not as simple as walking into a shop and walking out again with your wares in your hands and your pockets relieved of hard-earned cash.
There is no bull about the customer being king or customer service.
The equation is simple; the shop owner wants money and you want what he is selling. Between these two axioms the two of you can probably figure something out.
First let me paint a picture of how the shops are laid out in the capital, Algiers. I can sum it up in a word: everywhere. Everywhere you go there are shops selling every trinket made under the sun, grocer’s shops with sticks of French bread poking out of baskets and crates of oranges just begging to be stolen (it used to surprise us as foreigners that they never were), hardware shops that sell practically everything needed to build anything, markets with fresh (and not-so-fresh) fruit and vegetables, little restaurants with slowly rotating stacks of meat on the grills stationed on the pavements (that will soon be used to make that uniquely Arab snack, the shwarma: flat bread loaded with meat and chips, eggs and lettuce and then generously drizzled with mayonnaise and spicy sauce) and a million cafés where men congregate to sip their cups of lethally concentrated coffee.
And as much as the centre of Algiers could be passed off as Paris with its luxury boutiques, there are very few big department stores or supermarket chains. For the most part shops are small and family-owned and this is certainly true in the communes beyond the city’s heart. You are likely to find an entire family in one shop—at least from the male side. The son is working the till, the father is managing the place and the grandfather is making sure the grandchildren are working and not chatting on the pavement. As you walk into the shop there is the traditional Arabic greeting “Al-salamu alaykum” (Peace be upon you), or sometimes the French “Bonjour”.
As you start to look around, it is unlikely that anyone will hover over you annoyingly or ask those ingratiating questions about what you want and whether you want to try the hideous red shirt in the corner. No, the shop owner will continue drinking his little cup of coffee and allow you the peace and privacy you need.
As you browse through the articles, you will notice something strange (unless you are in one of the rare supermarkets); there are no price tags on the goods. If you want to know the price of something, you have to call over to the shop owner and ask how much it is, to which he will reply with a price that is almost always a multiple of five.
When you find something you want, the real magic begins—the wrangle. You put on your most sorrowful face and complain that the price is too high; sometimes you don’t even have to act because it actually will be. The shop owner will express understanding and knock down the price a bit. Now that you have established that he can knock down the price, you inwardly smile and name the price you want to give him, or preferably, a price way below that.
It is now his turn to wear the mask of sorrow and tell you that it is way too low and that his children are in school and that life is difficult. He will let this sink in, then shrug his shoulders and say that perhaps for you he would be willing to make another concession and this time he will give you a price, higher than your offer but lower than his original quotation.
At this point you will smile at each other, grateful for having got what you both wanted. A handshake and the deal is done.
Shopping is an art I have had to learn slowly and painfully, from my first days in Algeria before I had a firm grasp of French numbers and I would have to point to whatever I wanted and say “ça” (that) and the shop owner would obligingly write down the price so I could read it. Or the time before I understood the difference between dinars and centimes (the latter is the former multiplied by a hundred) and I thought that pencils cost $30.
But it is an art I have learned well—so well, in fact, that a few weeks ago I walked into a shop to buy soap and not only did I get a bargain, I was offered a hamburger on the house. How could I refuse? I’m still Zimbabwean, after all.
Bongani Ncube is a Zimbabwean studying computer science in Algiers