The Rolex Rip Off

John Hellner

© Copyright 2002 by John Hellner

Photo of John and lady bargaining using calculators.

During a holiday lull, I did a quick ‘life figure up.’ I decided I’d settle for a ‘Rolex.’  Not exactly a ‘Rolex Rolex,’ but a fake ‘Rolex’ bargained for on the streets of Koh Samui, Thailand.

Two obstacles stood in my way.  Firstly, I am so irretrievably conventional, I am scared legless about bargaining.  Secondly, I had no idea how to bargain.  I figured mastery of the second problem would solve the first.

I’ve always wanted the visible trappings of wealth.   A  BMW, a beach house, a yacht, label clothes and salmon steaks for breakfast works for me.  But, as a schoolteacher, already teaching a second generation, I decided to call it even if I got a ‘sort of’ Rolex.  Who cares, it looks the same.

My partner, Kerry, also a teacher, said, ‘how bad do you want this symbol of western decadence?  How bad do you want to stand in the street, haggle over prices, in a currency you don’t know, with someone whose language you don’t understand?’ Typical schoolteacher!

Being a deeply superficial person, I said, ‘A lot.’

As a teacher, my ‘negotiating’ skills go like this:

‘Keep quiet you wretched boy.  Keep it up and I will have your oesophagus for my necktie.’  Not pretty, but effective.  Somehow, this blunt instrument didn’t seem quite so effective when bargaining for a street ‘Rolex.’  I set up an ‘action plan’ for personal growth as a bargainer.

First, I did some reading. I found that ‘Sanook’ (fun), ‘Chai yen’ (cool heart), and ‘Kwam soopap Riap Rawy’ (well-mannered politeness) are important to Thais. A relaxed, cool grace and patient dialogue would be more useful to me, than my usual relentless talent for being pushy, assertive and directive.

Secondly, while we grazed our way through a gigantic, American breakfast, I discussed strategy with two ‘experts’ in the field.  Our ‘neighbours’ at our posh resort,’ were a wealthy, weathered, ‘fiftyish’ Australian couple.

‘It’s like finding a relationship partner,’ she said.

‘Talk to a few tourists to find out about deals they made and the prices they paid.  Watch a few deals go down.  Practice your own bargaining styles.   Know what you will pay at home.  Get a figure in your mind that you are prepared to pay.  Then go for it.’

She paused for a moment and added, ‘And sincerity in a relationship is everything.  If you can fake that, you’ve got it made in the shade.’  She used her thumb to indicate her husband next to her, ‘That’s how I found him.’

‘Congruency,’ was all he said.

‘What?’ Kerry and I burbled in confusion

‘Heard it from a joker who did some communication work with my sales staff.  Means using your tone of voice, gestures, sounds, expression, posture, eyes and everything to send your message.  Use them all together to make your meaning clear.  Congruency!’

Without prompting, he stood up and gave us a demonstration at the breakfast table.  In a brief and magnificent macro moment, he rolled his eyes and head upwards, exhaled through his nose, made a ‘tisking’ sound with his tongue, groaned, grimaced and raised his hands skyward as if appealing a referee’s call.

He conveyed a clear message, expressing astonishment and disbelief without saying a word.  We were gobsmacked.

‘And that’s how I start bargaining…congruent’ he said.  He sat down, sipped his coffee and critiqued himself, ‘I should’a been an actor.’

‘Thai vendors are world class performers.  They do for ‘congruency’ what Stonehenge does for rocks,’ his wife added.

‘It’s all a game.  Great feeling to screw someone down an extra fifty cents,’ he said.

With an invincible sense of mission, Kerry and I headed out to the street for a practice run just after lunch.  During the day, the heat and humidity hits us like a hot towel put around our bodies.  An inauspicious start.  An evil omen.

The old song lyric, ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun’ is true.  It is so stiflingly muggy; business doesn’t start pumping until late afternoon.  We wilted as we progressed from stall to stall.

Chaweng Beach Rd. is a cacophony of sights and sounds, typical of an Asian Street.  Motor bikes buzz, careening from side to side of the road to avoid a pedestrian or another vehicle. Signs, poles, wires, squalor, litter, ‘hawkers and dogs compete for space on the constricted pathways. Strangely, a paucity of dog droppings and female dogs.  We often step into the street to avoid obstacles or oncoming  people.

Stalls, bars, restaurants, massage parlours, cubbyhole banks, currency exchanges, tailoring and jewelry shops beckon. The stalls look like a flea market up and down the street.  An endless variety of watches, clothing, soap carvings, sunglasses, T-shirts, hats, belts, fabrics, CD’s, bags, shoes and more rest on tables, poke out of baskets, dangle from the ceilings and clutter the floors.  The price, rarely marked, is negotiable.  Once you ask for a price, the vendor uses a calculator to key in a figure.  Expecting you to bargain,the vendor hands the calculator to you for a counter offer.

All in all it is a vast and picturesque collage of colour and activity not unlike a hybrid cross between “Marvel Comics” and “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

If you know the rules of shopping, you have a good chance to score some bargains.  Rolex, Gucci, Versace, Chanel, Oakley, Quicksilver and Ralph Lauren labels abound.  Label’ at the stalls means it’s fake, like my ultimate prize, the fake Rolex.  But, they are well made fakes, and at a fraction of the price, so who cares?

My first bargaining practice targeted label T-shirts.  My son has an insatiable appetite for label T-shirts.  Sort of a T-shirt ‘black hole in space.‘  Examining the goods, beginning to show an interest, the stall attendant quickly moved into our space.

‘Sawadee Krap’ (Hello), I said.  Pointing to a bright blue ‘Ripcurl’ T-shirt I said, ‘Taorai?  How much?’

The ubiquitous calculator materialized, beginning the elaborate piece of theatre called bargaining.

The vendor keyed in 350 Baht (about 8-9 USD).   I responded with a congruent performance, modeled on the ‘expert.’  I used a combination of acting and slapstick.  I added a few ritual strutting and head bobbing behaviours I had seen conducted by a female black widow spider, on a public television documentary.  The ‘widow’ wooed her unsuspecting male into a fatal copulation.

I believed I had politely set this vendor up for a fatal thrust, sending her the unequivocal, non verbal message, ‘I’m flummoxed by your price.’  And I added, ‘Paeng maht.  Very expensive.’  I thought I faked sincerity splendidly.  So far, so good.

But, I lost my nerve.  At a starting offer of 350 Baht, I felt a counter offer of 100 Baht would insult and offend the vendor.  I came back with 170 Baht.  I wanted to keep a ‘cool heart.’

The vendor took her turn to communicate her astonishment and contempt for my ‘ridiculous’ offer.  She did.  In an instant, her whole body, her tone, and the expression on her beautiful, young, round face made a miraculous transformation and she pleaded, ‘Give me a price, pleeese?’

I folded instantly.  I quickly keyed in 200 Baht and meekly said, ‘Tao nan.  That’s all.’  We settled up at 220 Baht or about $5.50 USD.  I felt I had about as much moxie as a canary.

Back at the resort, Kerry and I displayed our ‘triumph’ to our Australian mentors. They chortled together, and he said, ‘You got screwed mate!  You can pick those up for 150 Baht if you’re good.’

We felt foolish about our ineptitude, but didn’t want to let on to our Aussie friends.  Eventually, Kerry regained her composure and demurely asked, ‘What’s a good figure to aim for?’

While his wife nodded agreement, the Aussie expert lectured, ‘Generally, if you can get an item for about 30-40 percent of the vendor’s original asking price you have done well.  That means in the first counter offer you have to come back with a figure even lower than 30-40 percent, so you can bargain upwards to meet them around that 30-40 percent mark.  Don’t feel ridiculous with a low offer.  It’s the game.  It’s expected.’

‘How much do you think I should pay for a Rolex?’ I asked.

‘Four hundred Baht! You have to hang tough, be prepared to walk away, and, above all, play the game,’ our mentor told us.

Enjoying ‘sundowners’ with our Aussie coaches, Kerry and I evaluated the day’s events again.  We re jigged our strategies for an assault on the Rolex the next day.

Setting out in late afternoon we had a quick practice at a T-shirt stall.  We scored a label for 160 Baht about $3.50 USD, about 42% of the initial price.  Vindication!  We could do it.  We were ready.  My moment had arrived.   Time to pick off a ‘Rolex.’

The vendor opened with a price of 1800 Baht ($45 USD).  I expressed my surprise and dismay at this opening salvo, as I had before on the T-shirt trial run.  Responding with a figure of 200 Baht, I steeled myself for the vendor’s superlative, slapstick reply. I knew he would send the signal announcing my offer had set a new world record in the domain of the ridiculous and absurd.

I didn’t flinch.  Back and forth went the calculator, some lighthearted banter and pleading. Back and forth acknowledgement of each other’s bargaining skills. Messages of confusion, disappointment, feigning disbelief and firmness.  Always ‘congruent’ and always polite.  I hung tough.

At about 600 Baht, Kerry and I went into a prearranged consultation.  We played out a ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine.  Kerry, ‘the bad cop,’ shook her head and pointed as if we should leave, saying to me, ‘that’s too much. Let’s go.’  And to the vendor she lied, ‘just looking now, come back later.’

As the ‘good cop,’ I signaled to the vendor I was ‘caught between a rock and a hard place.’  I regretted having to offer such a low price for such a beautiful Rolex, but pointed out the incredible pressure from ‘the bad cop.’

As I keyed in a figure of 450 Baht, I pleaded, ‘Give me a price, pleeese?  Lot dai mai…cheaper?’

The vendor came back with 480 Baht.  I expressed shock, but a little less so.  Kerry secured the calculator and rapidly keyed 380. Her quick response served to send the message, ‘be realistic or we will leave.’

‘Fiddlesticks!,’ she added to re enforce her message.  I never heard her say ‘fiddlesticks’ before and expressed genuine surprise.  Grabbing my arm and pulling me away she said, ‘let’s go.’

With this powerful incentive the vendor capitulated, held up four fingers saying, ‘four hundred Baht,’ nodding assent.  Victory and a Rolex were mine.

But that’s not all.  Confident, flushed with success, even arrogant, I delivered the ‘Scud Missile’ of the bargaining world.

‘Man at resort say 380 for Rolex,’ I lied.

I shrugged my shoulders, gave a quizzical, confused expression, a shake of the head and prepared to leave.  I got my price.  The vendor hung his head in defeat.  The bargaining equivalent of Blitzkrieg.

In 279 BC Pyrrhus, defeated the Romans at Asculum, but suffered heavy losses.  General Pyrrhus may have said, ‘With victories like that, who needs losses?’  The Rolex deal would become a ‘pyrrhic victory.’

On the plane back home, Kerry met one of her schoolboys.  He had a very similar Rolex to me.  It cost him 200 Baht in Bangkok.

Making it worse, my Rolex stopped working two weeks after we got home.  Figuring the battery had died, I bought another.  The new battery cost me 50 percent of the price of the watch.  The watch still didn’t work.

Game, set and match to the vendor.

Charlie Macartney, a famous Australian cricketer, nicknamed ‘The Governor General,’ is quoted as commenting on his career, ‘I have no idea how many runs I scored, or how many wickets I took or how many catches I made.  All I care about is the way runs are scored and wickets taken…and love of the game.’

Like the ‘Governor General,’ my bottom line on bargaining is if you are happy with what you get, and how you got it, it’s worth it.  Part of the fun is looking back on the deals you made, the deals you ‘blew’ and laughing at it all.

Ultimately, bargaining, like life, isn’t about winning or losing.  It’s about playing the ‘game.’

And, I still wear the watch anyways.  I mean, it does have ‘Rolex’ written on it.

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