I have to admit that although living in gorgeous, well-organized, incredibly hygienic and most civilized Switzerland is an idyllic lifestyle, I do miss some of the shopping customs in other countries that I’ve been to. And that includes bargaining with the locals. My first lessons in haggling were given to me by some most congenial vendors while living in Guadalajara, Mexico as well as during many subsequent visits there. I learned quickly that if one did not try to bargain, it was an insult to the seller (as well as a very boring day for them). So we exchanged our “stories” and both parties came out happy. Fortunately, I began working in the travel industry and had many more opportunities to discover this fascinating way of shopping. The process of bargaining and the human exchange is as enjoyable as the resulting purchases which I usually had difficulty fitting into my suitcase regardless of where I went. I fairly well emptied out the marketplace in Chichicastenango, Guatemala one time and my garment bag no longer folded!
More recently, I had a delightful bargaining exchange with Chinese vendors in markets and even in fixed price boutiques selling Chinese silk clothes and other goods in Shanghai where I bought 2 years worth of Christmas presents. I even went twice to one charming lady at a street stand who remembered me from my first visit. How could she forget me when on the first bartering experience my male colleague tried on a Chinese Cheongsam dress in the street to see if it would fit his wife while I took photos? The second time after the vendor and I went through our “discussions” and all of my treasures were wrapped and paid for, she gave me a silk scarf as a thank you gift. This is the joy of bartering and it was very touching.
Actually, my last and most surprising bargaining experience was in my own country at the Newark airport while changing planes! Haggling is not really a way of life in America. But I fell in love with a very expensive handmade stamped Taxco silver and stone inlaid necklace that I couldn’t afford. Slowly (in order to avoid shocking the store clerk) I started going into a rational conversation about the merits of her selling it to me for less. After some calculator finger dancing by the vendor, I walked away with a much beloved treasure for $200 less and the store made one of very few significant sales that very slow day.
But, alas, I’m back to Swiss alpine shopping which is structured and predictable. However, just because everything in Switzerland is regulated, precise, and arranged according to local customs where everything must be “correct”, that does not mean that there are no bargains here. Yes, it’s true that the store opening hours are regulated by either the Canton or the city governments and most stores have to be closed on Sunday (unless they are catering to tourists). It is also true that legislation concerns itself with pricing regulations. Previous legislation regarding discounting items in stores only permitted “les soldes” (the “sales”) during specific dates twice a year in January and July. And that was it! Those were frenetic times when everyone rushed out to take advantage of “les soldes”.
Then Switzerland went through a long period of recession in the 1990s and the law became more flexible (after many years of discussion and then everyone voting since this is a direct democracy). Now the stores are able to offer items on “action” (on sale) but there are still many rules concerning the procedures of discounting merchandise. For example, they can only mark items “action” if the item originally had a higher price and is now legitimately marked down. The stores are not allowed to bring in additional lower quality merchandise and mark it “action” or “solde” just to attract customers. However, the practice does exits but those items are marked “actuel” (specials that are priced low in the first place). These could actually (no pun intended) be most interesting as they say in French (“interessant” or affordable) and they could also be quite a good deal (“une bonne affaire”).
The “soldes” and “actions” are becoming even more interesting these days. At first a reduction of 10% was a cause of local disbelief and disorientation. But times are changing. Yesterday in Lausanne (on my way to buy my favorite handmade chocolates) I walked by a fashion boutique specializing in designers’ label-removed clothes with already everyday lower (not low) prices. The windows were plastered with huge signs screaming 50% off plus that price will be divided by 3 at the cash register and you would end up paying almost nothing! And it’s not even July or January, in which by the way, they still celebrate their big biannual “soldes” on top of the new almost anything goes policy. Afterall, the biannual “soldes” are a tradition!
I just passed past the boutique to the chocolate store and probably after savoring those Swiss delicacies the clothes would not fit me for very long anyway. Even the “chocolatier” offers me a kind of “discount”. We have an unofficial loyalty program going on. I fill up an empty suitcase with his chocolate when I travel and he gives me free boxes of chocolate when I go in to make occasional purchases. It is easy for him and the staff to always remember me. I’m one of their few customers who speaks French with a Californian accent.
Therefore, despite all of the snail-paced rule-making and “correctness”, there are things to know in order to get a bargain in Switzerland or at least get the best price possible. The first important piece of knowledge, if you have a choice when shopping (depending on what you are looking for), is that Zurich is one of the most expensive cities, not only in Switzerland, but in the world. In the Lake of Geneva region the most expensive city is Geneva which is why a lot of locals live in the Canton of Vaud, especially in Lausanne and commute to Geneva to work (for higher salaries). So, your best bet is Lausanne for lower prices. However, if you are in the market for high fashion, etc, there is not the choice in Lausanne as in Geneva or Zurich. But if you want to take back excellent chocolates and a few Swiss-like souvenirs (cow motifs are popular even with the Swiss, or especially with the Swiss), try to do that in Lausanne.
However, for you to actually try to bargain and ask for a lower price on most anything in a Swiss shop would be most likely perceived as insulting and devaluing the merchandise and the vendor would probably be shocked. After all, unlike in many places, the Swiss post their prices in the store to be transparent for everything, even if it’s for a watch that costs $40’0000! Therefore, after so much trouble has been taken to communicate the price to you and you suggest any other numbers that could be taken as an accusation of over-charging for the article in the first place. (A little tongue in cheek here because many Swiss in this region go to nearby France to shop even to buy just weekly groceries because it is much less expensive).
However, there are some “opportunities” even in some fixed price Swiss shops. The most likely shops to offer you a deal are the small independent stores which have been more or less obliged to accept credit cards although most stores did not do so when I first moved to Switzerland. But due to competition and modern customer expectations, almost all stores (but still not all restaurants) accept credit cards. However, while you hold out your credit card, you might be offered some “reduction” in the price if you pay with cash. Many little stores are happy to avoid processing the credit card and paying the fees. But do not ask directly at first. The Swiss vendors like to be in the position to offer you “consideration” rather being viewed as losing control over their situation. You see it’s “discreet bargaining” and it’s all in the manner, but the results are the same. You may be able to obtain a 10% – 20% reduction for paying cash. Now if they should forget to offer you this alternative, then you ask if it exists. Not everyone will do it but it does happen frequently.
Even in Switzerland local street market vendors are more “flexible”. Some vendors are more open to the idea of bargaining than others so you must approach the subject very discreetly. You certainly would not want to degrade their products by offering less if the price is marked (yes, even in the street markets those prices are there). Feel your way through that gray area and remember that the vendors would prefer to return home without their products, especially if they are perishable items. Therefore, the best times for “discussion” are about an hour or so before the market closes.
There are many street markets to choose from all over Lausanne, outlying villages and some in Geneva. Of course, they occur at certain times on specific days (predictability!). One of the most colorful and extensive farmers’ markets in the Lake Geneva region is in the center of Lausanne. The vendors come from all over the region and fill the ancient winding cobblestone streets with their farm produce, flowers and homemade goodies and other items on Wednesdays mornings and Saturday mornings from 8:00 AM until 2:30 PM. Bring your camera; it’s spectacular!
On Mondays and Thursdays you can find local agricultural produce and cheeses at the Boulevard de Grancy street market just below the Lausanne train station from 8:00 AM until 1:00 PM. If it’s Friday then go to the produce and cheese market at the Pontaise in Lausanne (bus n° 1 Casernes) open from 8:00 AM until 1:00 PM. Or you could go to the nearby village of Pully at the same times on Fridays. It’s a much smaller market but the village is very charming with a view of its own vineyards, the port below, Lake Geneva and the Swiss and French Alps (go to the terrace behind the church and sit ona bench snacking on your bargains and be amazed at the view).
One of the most frequented markets of the locals when ALL food stores were closed on Sundays (now it’s just limited) is the Ouchy Sunday Market open from April to September (those of us who could not plan ahead starved on Sundays in winter). Located on the spectacular Lack Geneva shoreline where the boats depart and arrive and behind the Chateau D’Ouchy (you can’t miss it!), the Ouchy Sunday market is open from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM! (You can always buy food at the grocer at the Lausanne train station 7 days a week and late at night but there are no bargains there!)
If you’re not in the mood for food there are other types of markets which may be of interest to all of you bargain hunters and hagglers. On Thursdays there is a flea market at Place Chauderon (center of Lausanne) set up from 9:00 AM until 7:00 PM.
In direct competition to the flea market and only a few streets away at the Place Riponne (also on Thursdays) is the “Marché des chômeurs” (Market of the Unemployed) selling “antiques” and junk and whatever. Yes, you read that correctly, it’s the market for unemployed persons to sell things in order to subsidize their unemployed benefits which are limited in duration like everywhere else. Being the industrial nation that it is, the Swiss prefer to be entrepreneurial in times of difficulty rather than ask for social aid. You will see no seriously fixed prices at these two markets, so bargain away!
Down the lake side road towards Montreux, you will find an enormous market unlike any others with many folkloric entertainers, artisans, and of course farmers’ and wine producers. This famous market is more for fun than bargains but you’ll have a huge choice of items. It operates every Saturday in July and August from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM. (Take a boat if you’re staying in Lausanne; it’s the best way to arrive or depart).
If you’re more in the mood for artistic creations, there are also the vendors at the Artisan Market at the Place de la Palud in the “Vielle Ville” of Lausanne on the first Friday of every month from March to November and then the first three week in December. This summer they were open even more frequently than usual, nearly every Friday.
Oftentimes, you can meet the artists and artisans personally who have an excellent variety of art and objects d’art for sale. Artists are by nature (I know as I’m one), very intimate with their work and may find bargaining far too demeaning for their masterpieces. On the other hand, if you pickup clues from them that they may be in the mood to make a sale on something you’re really interested in, you might respond in kind. In any case, the good news is that there is a great variety of most original objects ‘arts, jewelry, clothes, and much more for much less money than in any retail store. My favorite is the jewelry because it is so unique, aesthetic, handmade with love, and much less expensive than the more conservative pieces found in the shops.
I recently was looking for some creative jewelry to wear to an artsy cocktail reception and went to the Friday Artisan Market at the Place de la Palud and discovered some very unusual avant-garde glass jewelry mixed with other original materials that was perfect for the event. Although I only needed one item, everything was gorgeous and the prices were already marked well below store prices for far better quality as well as being handmade and original. After trying on some of my favorites of the artist’s treasures made by Ivana Schwab and chatting with her because she was good at critiquing her own work and told me whether it looked good on me or not, I left with 3 pieces with which I’m very happy and really feel like they were a great bargain.
Another area of interest for those of you who love “bargaining” are the hotels; even at some of the upscale properties. If the hotel is empty and you arrive or telephone late in the day, you may (no guarantee) receive “consideration” on the rack rates (full tariff). Hotels have very low variable costs (what it costs them to have you sleep there) and very high fixed costs (maintaining their centuries old buildings). Some incremental income for them may better than the alternative, which is nothing. Be aware however, that hotels in cities like Geneva and Zurich are oftentimes full with conferences during the slow periods, so smaller hotels are the best ones which may be more willing to discuss the rates. Do keep in mind that some hotels won’t discount just out of principle or concern about their image.
Better yet, bring a dozen or more of your friends and you will be able to really put your negotiating skills to the test. Not only could you try to get the room rates to plummet but you could also bargain for the extras – all those things that are not usually included in your room rate but that don’t really cost the hotel that much such as upgrades, welcome cocktails, breakfast, late checkout, etc. This is not a last minute transaction but one that you can do in advance and it actually helps hotels to better plan and to achieve their occupancy goals. Therefore, it can be a win-win for both parties and your friends will love you!
To learn about new posts of local expert Swiss travel blogs follow me on Twitter!