Myth Busted: Bali merchants are not giving you color-coded bags based on your haggling skills

Black is the preferred color for plastic bags of most of Kuta’s shopkeepers. Photo: Coconuts Bali

God bless the Daily Mail. Earlier this month, the Brit tabloid published a nail-biting “exposé,” detailing how vendors in Bali are secretly rating your bargaining competency by giving you different colored plastic bags corresponding to your haggling skills (or lack thereof).

Per the story, merchants are “categorizing shoppers right under their noses based on their haggling skills, the better to separate the “easy marks” from the “cheapskates.”

You’ll get your shopping goodies bagged up in a black plastic bag if you bargained well and got a good price, a red bag if you got the inflated tourist price, and a striped black-and-white bag if you seem to enjoy the sport of haggling, claims Jacob Polychronis, writing for Daily Mail Australia.

It’s a pretty amazing claim. They must have done some pretty intense research to rip the lid off this long-running scam, right?

Actually, no. No they did not. Their “research” consisted of speaking to one “regular Bali visitor,” a Kristian Troy, who single-handedly “uncovered” the system 30 years ago.

Troy says that he was skeptical when he first learned of the system, but he tested it out — at two shops! — and found it to be true.

“When I gave in easy at one shop, I was given a red bag, much to my disgust,” he told DM. “I then bought the same item at another shop and really haggled and got a black bag.”

Well then. Case closed!

Not that you should need much convincing at this point that the Daily Mail was simply pulling this story out of their ass, but since we had nothing better to do, we decided to give our man Troy the benefit of the doubt, and headed to the heart of Kuta, ground zero for souvenir shopping in Bali.

Friendly disclaimer: You shouldn’t be using plastic bags on an island like Bali that’s being choked with plastic in the first place, but that’s an issue for another time.

Making our way from Kartika Plaza to Poppies I, we chatted to more than 10 shopkeepers about the plastic bag conspiracy, and got one resounding response about the alleged system: “bohong” (Indonesian for lie or fabrication).

Bali plastic bag system
Photo: Coconuts Bali

“What? I never heard that, that’s funny,” said Tom, one Kuta shopkeeper selling the usual Ganesha tanks, Bintang beer cozies, and themed Bali keychains.

“That’s not true, why do that?”, chortled Toni, another merchant down the street with similar wares.

In fact, of the 10 plus shops we went to, only one had even heard of the alleged plastic bag scam before.

“Cuma gosip itu” (that’s only gossip), said Juniadi, an old merchant from Java who sells sports jerseys, mainly basketball and football.

“I heard that before, but it’s made up. Don’t believe it,” he said.

By the way, not a single shop we visited even had red bags.

“We only have black bags here,” said Hary, a response that was repeated by almost every other shop. And no, we didn’t take their word for it. We checked.

Most merchants told us they prefer black because it’s easy, simple, and stronger.

Bali plastic bag system
Photo: Coconuts Bali
Bali plastic bag system
Photo: Coconuts Bali
Bali plastic bag system
Photo: Coconuts Bali

“But not all our customers even want plastic bags anymore,” Hary added.

Out of all the shops we went to, only one had a color other than black in stock. That shop had both black and white bags, and strictly for pragmatic reasons — the white bags are bigger and stronger than the black bags, Nyoman told us.

Whenever we politely asked if we could see their stock of bags, every single shopkeeper had no problem taking us behind the counter and showing us. So, unless they all had the red bags hidden away because they knew Coconuts would be wandering by — and that would be some impressive, next-level conspiracy — the so-called bag system is well, bullshit.

To wrap things up, we went to Citra Mulya Plastik, a plastic shop in Kerobokan that supplies plastic bags to merchants up and down the south of Bali.

The employees were quick to show us why the shops choose the bags that they do, the real differences between the different color bags: size, thickness, and price.

Despite the evidence, we mustered up the courage to ask them about the “bag system.”

They just laughed.

Plastic shop
Packs of bags of a shelf at a plastic shop in Kerobokan. Photo: Coconuts Bali

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