Continuing my series on shopping in India, I wanted to talk about independent stores and shops associated with the Ministry of Textiles. Here I’m talking about stores you don’t find in the mall, but along the street, in a strip mall, business area, or a tourist attraction. What you find, and the experience you have, varies greatly. Some are typical high end stores with a stand alone location, the same you might find in any mall. Some are of the mom and pop variety, where you can expect that legendary Indian service, and some are really just out to swindle you (though a lot less than you think even in high tourist traffic areas).
In general, the high end shops, expect the standard Western experience. Cash and credit welcome, good quality and no bargaining. These are set prices and the individual label for each item lets you know that.
Shops associated with the Ministry of Textiles, mainly the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, are quite different altogether. The Cottage Industries and shops associated with it work with the Ministry of Textiles. They are set up in tourism areas and ensure they sell the highest quality goods. You can rely on the quality, but, prices are fixed. In addition there are a number of shops that are local non-profit co-ops. These as well work with the local craftsmen to ensure they sell high quality goods at fair, set prices. Here you know exactly what you are getting and where the money is going. If you are shopping for something where you want to ensure the quality and a fair price (with a “fair-trade” mindset), this is the recommended place to go.
My favorite, however, are the mom and pop shops. In India, the smaller shops are highly specialized, so when you go into one, you know what your looking for. Sari, jewelry, handmade textiles, all must buys in India. Most of these type of stores will have a “Fixed Price” sign. However, that is often negotiable and it’s worth asking for a discount. I’ve often found that if I combine my shopping for multiple items in one store, I can almost always negotiate a discount, and I am a seriously bad negotiator!
One thing you can expect shopping in all these shops is exceptional service and an experience unlike what you find elsewhere in the world, especially in the developed world. Most items are handmade, making every piece unique instead of mass produced. Upon entering you are often accompanied by what I’ll call a shop guide, who asks what you are looking for and takes you to the right department. As you sit and check out and admire the goods, you are treated to chai, coffee, water or even soda. (I has to stop the helper from giving my son soda at a jewelry store). Then several assistants will start taking out piece after piece for you to look at. For example, when sari or textile shopping, the assistants will open an array of saris/textiles (e.g., drapes/curtains, shawls, upholstery, etc.) in front of you. Opening it allows them to show you and for you to appreciate the whole workmanship. It can be overwhelming but amazing at the same time. On most occasions it is best to remember that it is not an imposition on the sales people to show you the whole piece to allow you to make a decision. The sales people are proud to show you the intricacy and beauty of the pieces they sell. No two pieces are alike allowing you to truly find something to call your own. The typical problem that I have in many of these places (particularly in the mom and pop shops) is containing my enthusiasm to buy all the pieces that are displayed to me.
As for stores that are out to swindle you, I wish I could say I have an exact formula on how to spot them, but not yet.
- Shop around. If the prices are unusually high, then that’s not the place for you. The prices of items should definitely NOT be comparable to the prices that you would have spent for the item in the US or anywhere else in the western world! This is because most of the places (with the exception of large/multistory standalone stores) operate at fairly low overhead (in comparison to their counterparts in the western world) and even with the offer of fair wages for the workers and craftsmen tend to be significantly less costly. They may say it’s high quality, but don’t trust them unless it’s a cottage industries shop, a nonprofit co-op, or a place you see a lot of locals. In general, shop where the locals shop!
- Many shop keepers believe that the first sale of the day drives their day. If they lose their first customer, it’s bad luck for the rest of the day. Same with the last customer of the day. Coming at opening or closing can have its advantages because they are looking to make sure you buy and are more willing to bargain.
- Any vendors right on premises of a big tourist attraction such as the Taj Mahal in Agra or Red Fort in Delhi are overpriced. Do yourself a favor and skip them.
- Your taxi driver and/or tour guide will take you to a “friend’s” shop, its almost unavoidable. Taxi drivers and guides in Agra and Jaipur tend to do this a lot. Understand that they are getting a commission for bringing you there. That’s not always a bad thing. For example, your guide may take you to a store where artisans still practice the art of inlaid marble work and carpet weaving in Agra. On our last visit, we were skeptical about such a trip but it turned out to a genuinely good experience. It is best to be candid with your taxi driver and ask him about the nature of the deal with the store. It is also good to be honest with him about what you are looking for. Of course, if you are not sure about what you want, you can always take advice from them. Allow yourself a little adventure! You can always say no, if you do not want to buy an item.
- Its always a bad sign if they are shutting the doors to concentrate on you.
- If you ever feel uncomfortable, get out. There are lots of shops, trust your gut.