The absurd experience of bazaar shopping raises all sorts of interesting questions. Like, is harassing tourists mercilessly and asking outrageously inflated prices for worthless tat really an optimal strategy? A colleague, an old Asia hand as it happens, says if there were a shop that had a big sign outside saying “Genuine prices for quality goods,” he’d shop there and nowhere else. I’m not so sure.

The fact that it is all so obviously such a game leads to thoughts of evolutionary strategies. If everyone is, what shall we say, a robber, is there any benefit to being helpful? Say a trader decides that he will stock his (or even her) shop with top quality goods, mark them with a fair price and wait for discerning tourists to beat a path to his door. Will the tourists ever find him? I doubt it, not in any of the souks I’ve ever been to. So he’d have extra outgoings in the form of advertising, maybe little maps, or signs, which the robbers would undoubtedly immediately tear down. If they did find him, would there be enough of them to supply a living at a reasonable mark-up?

Let’s assume he prospers. A couple of robbers, maybe his neighbours, see this, and emulate his enlightened behaviour. Now we have a cluster of honest shops. That makes it easier for us to find them, so they can dispense with the advertising. But they are in competition with one another. They each decide to specialise in a particular sphere of commerce. We’re close to tourist shopping nirvana. Outside, robbers pull on endless sleeves and unload shedloads of rubbish on boatloads of rubes. Inside, all is calm and a select shopping experience for the enlightened few.

Evolutionary stable shopping.

This is fun. What if the robbers, despite their outrageous behaviour, are actually making a better living? Their costs are so low, and their margins so high, that they would be fools to do things any differently. For every hard-nosed tourist who comes away well-satisfied that they got a 2 dollar bauble for only 20 dollars instead of the 200 being asked, there are three or four who think they’ve won at 100 dollars — half price! The nice guys get a look at the books (metaphorically speaking, for there are surely no books as such) and decide to abandon the high moral ground for the stinking swamps of daylight robbery. We’re back where we started.

p.s. A friend says: “Why not try the supermarkets?” Yes, well, er ...

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