ISTANBUL, March 8, 2008 -- In Istanbul, the saying goes, you will see the world.
But if you are speaking about the carpet business -- and how showrooms use every idea imaginable to sell to tour groups – the phrase could cover Kusadasi, Cappadocia, and many other places in Turkey as well.
Some tourists say the way Turkish carpets and kilims are sold is too aggressive. Some say it is highly entertaining. But just about everyone agrees it is unforgettable.
Perhaps that is why there are so many videos on the Internet about buying rugs in Turkey.
The videos range from very low-quality recordings to highly professional documentaries. What they have in common is a fascination with how Turkey's carpet sellers manage to make buying a rug almost a requirement for anyone visiting the country.
A Japanese blogger nicknamed Shinjushinju has put a video on YouTube called "Turkish Flying Carpets.” It offers a glimpse of how some showrooms are combining carpets with cabaret to create a rapport with tour groups:
The video shows the carpet sellers working up the crowd's appetite by spinning carpets over their heads. The effect is a bit like pizza-makers spinning dough into the air in Italian restaurants – only more novel.
Often, the showrooms offer other bits of entertainment as well. One is to pretend that there really is a “flying” carpet in the seller’s collection and to coax a member of the tour group to sit on it.
The willing participant is blindfolded and there are magical incantations from the showmen. Does the carpet rise in the air? No, until four strong salesmen each grab a corner and lift it up – with the carpet rider on top.
But what seems to most fascinate Japanese and European visitors is the show that still remains at the heart of any stop in a carpet shop – haggling over prices.
Journeyman Pictures, a London distributor of short documentaries, has put a video on YouTube called "The Carpet Sellers – Turkey." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F34Btbq1qc). It looks at the haggling process from both sides – buyer’s and seller’s.
One carpet salesman in the film says he adjusts his strategy according to the provenance of the customer. In the mass tour business, that seems to be more important in determining prices than the provenance of a carpet.
The toughest Western customers, he says, are Australians. Unlike most Americans and Europeans, they are prepared to put a seller through a long examination of his merchandise and of the art of carpets in general. These buyers want to be educated consumers, even if it requires drinking oceans of apple tea to do it.
Do people generally feel they get their money’s worth when they buy in Turkey? The answer varies with the individual.
Some people in tour groups complain that the carpet business is so strong that it interferes with their sightseeing. Tour guides sometimes cut short visits to historic sites like Ephesus in order to deliver their groups more quickly to salesmen.
Other people find that when they buy a carpet in Turkey, the carpet business follows them home – literally. That can happen when customers choose to have a large carpet shipped to their home countries rather than carry it themselves.
The carpet will be delivered but their name and address may also be passed on to itinerant rug sellers, for example, in America, who will phone them at home months later.
“Do you remember my uncle who sold you a carpet in Istanbul?” the voice may ask. If the buying experience in Turkey was positive – and often the past looks rosiest from a distance – the call may lead to a door-to-door visit.
And then, in the surprising setting of one’s own home, the unforgettable experience of buying a carpet in Turkey may begin all over again.
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