Shopping as Sport in Egypt

In Egypt, shopping for souvenirs is challenging — but entirely satisfying

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Click here to read more about some of the best shopping areas in Egypt.

Typically, when we think of adrenaline-fueled travel adventures, we think of such activities as climbing Kilimanjaro, running with the bulls or swimming with great white sharks. Shopping is generally not considered a hair-raising experience. But, as anyone who’s visited Egypt and haggled over cartouches and perfumes will tell you, shopping in Egypt can be as daunting as the hairiest bungee jump. Souvenirs from Egypt come with battle scars.

The shopping landscape in Egypt can often be overwhelming, even along the Nile. // © 2010 Dean Blaine

Egypt: The shopping landscape
in Egypt can often be
overwhelming, even along the Nile.
// © 2010 Dean Blaine

Many merchants in the tourist areas are notorious for aggressive sales tactics including, but not limited to, shouting, cat-calling, following tourists for blocks down the street, even grabbing shoppers by the arm. Merchants in tiny dinghies even row alongside Nile riverboats, tossing their wares onto deck. Try using the phrase, “I’m just looking,” in Egypt and you may as well be muttering gibberish. Many in our small group eventually gave up on the idea of purchasing souvenirs, completely intimidated and exhausted by the process.

“The shopping experience in Egypt is a world of its own,” said Rami Girgis, product manager covering Egypt and the Middle East for Abercrombie & Kent USA.

The process, I found, however, just requires patience and understanding. Although some vendors may shout or raise their voices, Girgis said that, typically they are just excited about the topic being discussed or they are happy to have met you. They may look angry, but they are not. Travelers should be prepared.

“One of the challenges that Western visitors often encounter is the uninterrupted yelling by merchants for you to enter their stores,” Girgis said. “Visitors to Egypt must expect this. If you’re not interested, be polite, say ‘no, thank you,’ and be firm. Don’t make eye contact.”

Merchants outside the famous temples along the Nile are particularly aggressive, often asking, “What is your name?” or “Where are you from?” The polite traveler might stop to engage in conversation and, soon enough, he or she might find him or herself to be the owner of a shiny new shisha (Egyptian water pipe).

One sales tactic involves the gift of a scarf. Upon entering the temple, a tourist is presented with a colorful scarf. Whether the visitor realizes it or not, the merchant might see this exchange as a promise by the traveler to visit his shop upon leaving the temple. If the traveler does not comply, the merchant often makes a boisterous scene, demanding the return of the scarf. In this situation, Girgis reminded travelers to be firm.

“Threaten to leave the shop,” Girgis said. “If absolutely necessary, you can threaten to report the vendor to the authorities or to the tourist police.”

On a recent trip to Egypt, I eventually broke down and entered a perfume shop in the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada. Once inside the shop, I was surrounded by delicate glass vials of exotic fragrances, away from the relentless din on the street and, I must admit, I had a pleasant time. For more than 30 minutes, young, 20-something Ayman Ahmed and I sipped tea. We discussed the U.S. He told me that he was very honored that I was the first American to ever visit his shop. He was proud to tell me he knew the name of California’s “governator,” he joked. We discussed his hometown of Luxor and his oppressive older brother. He talked about his mother back home in Luxor and the Russian women who frequent the nightclubs in Hurghada — of whom his mother knows nothing. I sampled scents of jasmine, sandalwood and an Aramis cologne knockoff. When I decided not to make a purchase, the tea disappeared. He stood up and showed me to the door, smiling.

“I am not angry,” he said. “You are the first American to visit my shop. You don’t have to buy anything. I am not angry.”

“It’s important to not get intimidated as Egypt has many unique souvenirs that are not to be missed,” said Kim Vincent, product manager for Globus, a provider of Nile River cruises.

Popular souvenirs include painted papyrus, handmade rugs, intricate gold cartouches, alabaster and perfume. But be prepared to haggle, Vincent said.

“It is not considered rude as in some other cultures; in Egypt, it is actually expected and considered an art by many vendors,” Vincent said.

Vincent offered tips for haggling. Start with the list price, divide by four and start the bargaining from there, she said. It’s also a good idea to know what price you’re willing to pay for the item before you begin negotiating. Tour guides or local acquaintances are a great source for determining the fair price of an item.

“Another tip,” Vincent said, “is to hit the markets at night.” The merchants often accept lower prices later in the evening in an effort to close out the day with a sale. Finally, be willing to walk away, Vincent said. “Vendors will put up a strong front and appear as if they are not willing to budge on price. If you walk away, nine times out of 10, they will come after you willing to accept your lowest offer.”

At the very least, your clients are liable to wrangle a few sips of tea and some interesting conversation out of the deal, as well as a harrowing tale of adrenaline-laced adventure for the folks back home.

Egyptian Tourist Authority