The best way to do your shopping, I find, is semi-naked and coated in coconut oil

Have you bartered for anything lately, or have you given it up in the face of global capitalism? I remember, as a kid in the Seventies, being taken around meat markets where my family would buy sausages, chops, school uniforms, everything. Dad always got away with murder. "For you, Tony me old mate, call it five bob," hearty men in overalls would simper because he was "famous".

But Nan had grown up in coal-stealing poverty and really understood the craft of wearing down an economic opponent. She never, ever, paid the price on the tag, and if she did, ooh there was hell to pay. She'd make a note of the item, the store and the date in a little book. Months, even years, later she would take the item back to the shop and demand a full refund for "shoddy stitching" or "this stain here". If the manager got "bolshie" and pointed out the age of the clothing, she would cross her arms and start telling any shopper within earshot how poorly the clothes came out in the wash, and so on. Eventually, in a fury, the manager would cough up and we'd be "escorted" through the double doors and out on to the street. Shopping was both humiliating and exciting.

I had presumed that, with the advent of the big chain stores and US-style malls, wheeling and dealing had disappeared from our high streets. What a fool I've been. This week, I went hunting for a laptop. I had a limited amount to spend, so I was forced to make notes and compare prices. Flicking through an indecipherable catalogue in Tiny, the young salesman offered me the world with any purchase over a grand. He even guaranteed a delivery date. My hand shot towards my credit card and hovered.

"Thank you, but," I heard myself saying from a distance, "I'm going to pop over to Time computers and see what they've got."

Immediately, he was at my side. A catalogue was pushed into my hands. "We'll match anything they offer," he lisped.

The smooth-talking manager at Time showed me his wares and offered to throw in "a leather carry case, a lock and interest-free insurance" with a similar computer.

Finally, I tried the big red retailer, just to gauge the bog-standard prices and offers. Here, I met the most aggressive sales technique of all. When the female manager caught a glimpse of my gold credit card, she talked me through the store's range in person. After ten minutes, she was getting desperate - nothing she could find in any of her literature matched what I had been offered. "Well, look," I said reasonably, "jiggle the insurance a bit, throw in some extras, make it worth my while, and I'll consider it." She stared at me, went silent, shook her head in amazement and, sounding like Margo in The Good Life, trilled: "We don't partake of that behaviour here."

Then, remembering my credit card, she added desperately: "But I wouldn't buy a computer from the other stores. They don't work, they'll break down . . ." I was hurrying out the door.

"You'll be sorry," she called out.

Bali in Indonesia is a good place for bargaining, especially if you are topless. Here, the opening gambit of beach traders hawking everything from paintings to dresses is "I give you special morning/ afternoon price". On the beach, as I sunbathed topless, a group of young women ran over and, without so much as a by-your-leave, began rubbing oil into my back and then, with a bossy "turn over now", on to my bare breasts. "You pay us later." They laughed.

In minutes, a crowd of men selling all manner of garbage had gathered round to watch. "Wanna drink?" gurned a toothless old man. "Chess set for you, lady?" asked another, his eyes everywhere but my wallet. I still have the "hand-carved" chess set I bought for a song that day. Semi-naked and coated in coconut oil may not be the ideal way to do your shopping, but it gives you the edge when negotiating with men.

This article first appeared in The end of the open society?

2001-09-17