You know that devilish trick that Cinnabon has in American malls of pumping its sickly sweet scent into the corridor outside the shop, so that anyone within a 100-foot radius is compelled to follow the smell to the source and then, before you know it, you’ve got a giant Cinnabon in your clutches and halfway down your gullet? You know that feeling? Where a smell is so intoxicating that it makes you do things? That, my friends, is the effect that the Florence leather market has on me. If I found out they’re spraying leather scent at nose-height in the street, I wouldn’t be surprised.
I’ll admit that I have an addiction to shoes and purses, so traveling in Italy is almost always dangerous for me (not to mention my bank account). On my last trip to Italy I had scheduled my visit to Florence near the end of my trip, and prior to arriving in Florence every time I would look twice at a new purse or pair of boots I’d say, “No, no – wait until Florence.” And I did. I waited. And then I got to Florence, and – completely accidentally – my path from the train station to my hostel went straight through the heart of the leather market. I swear, I didn’t mean it to happen, but you can see how I’m so powerless to the leather market that even I don’t realize it.
That first trip through the leather market I got through unscathed, without a single purchase. I did, however, see a gorgeous purse of an impossible turquoise color that, when I went back on several occasions to try to find it, had sadly disappeared. And my suitcase was only slightly heavier on my return to Milan than it was when I arrived in Florence – I got one purse for me, one for a friend and a pashmina for me. That’s not to say I didn’t spend countless hours wandering through the leather market, though, or try on a sumptuous lambskin three-quarter-length coat… (Oh, it’s too painful to think about it, since I didn’t come home with it!) At any rate, after browsing, shopping, bargaining and learning to say NO in the leather market in Florence, I thought I’d share a few tips with you so you can go shopping like a pro.
Jessica’s Tips for Shopping in the Florence Leather Market
- Keep an eye on your stuff. Markets like this, especially when they’re busy and crowded, are perfect places for pickpockets. People stroll through them, enraptured by the merchandise and not paying attention to their wallet in their back pocket or the fact that their purse is hanging half-open. Plus, the people in front of you are almost always going to be moving more slowly than you want to move, leaving you vulnerable as well. You need to be really vigilant in the market, not only so that you won’t pay too much for something you buy, but also so you won’t get anything stolen in the process.
- That purse looks familiar… Make more than two laps up and down Via dell’Ariento and you’ll be wondering whether you’ve passed the same leather stall four times. Sure, there’s a wide variety of merchandise on offer, but not as much as it appears. Many of the stalls have the exact same stuff as some other stalls, because they’re representing the same leather shops. You’re not in the Twilight Zone, but you are seeing double – kind of.
- Shop around before you buy. Although you’ll likely see the same leather stuff in several stalls, there are enough differences between the stalls that it doesn’t hurt to ask the price of a similar item in a few places before you start thinking about handing over money. The prices could vary by €5-10, or more depending on how expensive the item is you’re looking at, and that’s just the starting price. The prices in the leather market are as soft as that lambskin coat I didn’t buy, so you’d better:
- Get used to bargaining. This isn’t an Asian market or anything, but if there’s a printed price on something you should definitely not pay that price. There’s always a “sconto,” or discount, which they give to anyone who doesn’t look prepared to just fork over the asking price. Ask “Quanto costa?” (“How much?”) and then look like you’re trying to decide whether it’s too much; if they don’t immediately offer a discount when you ask the price, they will soon. This is where shopping around before you buy comes in handy, because you’ll know exactly where the lowest starting price was. Then, when you start walking away from something, they’ll start lowering the price even more. If it gets to a price you like, then go for it. If not, offer what you’re prepared to pay. Of course, if you really want the item, you’ll have to be prepared to pay whatever their lowest price is – but if you’re okay with walking away then you’re a stronger person than I am.
- Know where you’re going. Purses and pashminas don’t require a fitting room, so you can pick one out and buy it without walking more than three feet from the front of that stall. If you’re eyeing a coat, however, or anything that requires a changing room and a mirror, you’ll be taking a walk – sometimes a long walk. The leather stall is often nowhere near the actual shop it represents, so if you want to try something on you’ll have to follow the nice stall operator back to the shop where there are other sizes you can choose from – and more insistent salespeople. My advice is this – if you want to buy a leather coat (or some other leather garment) in Florence, you’re likely to get a great deal on it. But ask the price before you go anywhere to try anything on – if the starting price is too rich for your blood, resist the temptation to try it on anyway and hope you can get the price down to a reasonable level. Even €100 off a €300 coat is still €200, which (while it might be a good deal) is a lot of money, especially to US citizens traveling on the ever-sinking dollar!
- Cash is king. Even though you need to keep an eye out for pickpockets, you should also be prepared to pay for almost everything you buy with cash. Some of the stalls do have machines and will take credit cards, but they’ll automatically add on a few euro for the charge they say they’re incurring for using the machine. Whether it’s a valid claim or not I’m not sure, but it’s just easier to avoid dealing with it altogether by having cash on hand. This also helps if you have a limit set for yourself – if you only want to pay €40 for that purse and you’ve got exactly €40 in your wallet, it’s easier to bargain with the vendor because you really do only have €40 to spend. Nevermind that you can go to a Bancomat and get more, that’s what you’ve got and are willing to spend right now. Cash in hand is almost as intoxicating to the sellers as the leather smell is to you, so use that to your advantage.
- Hands off the fake designer bags! The official leather market stalls line the sides of the street, but in the middle of the street there are temporary sales stations that spring up with everything from crappy sunglasses to “real” Rolex watches to designer knock-off bags and belts. The fake name-brand stuff may seem appealing, but it can be a costly proposition – buying fake designer stuff comes with a fine of up to €10,000. It’s not worth it, really.
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Remember that in addition to the actual brick-and-mortar leather shops all over Florence, there are two outdoor markets. One runs along most of the Via dell’Ariento between Via Nazionale and the Piazza San Lorenzo. The other is called the Mercato Nuovo and it’s under a loggia between the Ponte Vecchio and Duomo near Via Porta Rossa and Via Calimala. There’s not much difference between the wares, but if you’re really into browsing you should certainly peruse both before you start shopping in earnest.
Here’s a video that includes a look at both the leather market and the indoor Mercato Centrale, where you can buy food: