Like everything else in China, the practice of buying goods has two faces: one tells of the gleaming opulence that comes only with polished floors, polite and helpful attendants, and portraits of Natalie Portman and George Clooney staring longingly at you, from ten-foot, glowing portraits. In this scene, mind-numbing smooth jazz usually accompanies the quiet décor, highlighted by chandeliers and little glasses of champagne. It’s a China that, until recently, did not exist even in the wildest imagination. The other tells of an equally foreign and bizarre experience, especially to those who have little knowledge of the one-part-clandestine-one-part-dramatic art of bargaining.
During my past three years of visits to China, I would often take friends to the Beijing Silk Market (秀水街) to buy cheap knock-off goods. I learned a few key insights from my mistakes and successes.
A trip to any of China’s clothing markets is always accompanied by ritualistic screaming, yelling and tantrum-throwing, a practice that wears thin on the mind and patience. Upon entering a place as vast as the Beijing Silk Street Market, you are immediately overwhelmed by the pace of business. The design of these markets is very similar from place to place: each market is usually a large multi-storied building that houses a plethora of individual stalls on each floor. Each stall is manned individually, by one or two attendants. As you walk through the aisles you are, in fact, being assaulted in every form of language: Russian, French, Mandarin, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Korean and even Urdu. Your assailants are usually pint-sized Chinese women with a fiery penchant for red-hot (albeit concise) verbal abuse. Their weapon of choice is a calculator, from which they unload their numerical attacks on your wallet. They are as ruthless as their customers are witless.
There are a few things to remember, when traveling through such hostile territory.
Setting a Price
First, prices of “knock-off” goods in China (e.g. Folex watches, Ralph Lauren ripoffs, Gucci bags) are significantly lower than their original counterparts. Often these have defects and are made with inferior materials. In other words, paying $50 USD for Air Jordan sneakers that might run $150 USD in the states is still a highway robbery. The easiest thing to do is convert the ideal price in USD to RMB and use that as a ceiling.
In other words:
$150 Jacket = 150 CNY – 33% = Final Price: 100 CNY
No Pain No Gain
One should be extremely worried if the deal is sealed painlessly: if social upheaval has not taken place within the confines of the stall, then one has most likely overpaid. Lack of resistance from the vendor most likely indicates that the terms are favorable for them, which are most likely not favorable for the buyer.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
While you may have found the perfect knock-off sweater, the amount of excitement you demonstrate upon finding that pair of shoes will affect the resistance to bargaining. A vendor will interpret high levels of enthusiasm as a sign that the buyer is attached to the particular good and will push for a higher price. It’s best that individuals walk through with a calm, “browsing” mentality, mentally earmarking goods that stand out, and trying a litany of articles, eventually singling out the desired one.
The most common thing that seems to happen to inexperienced bargainers is getting strong-armed through multiple methods. More than once, I got distracted by the vendor, who often knocked down my guard by striking up a conversation and creating rapport—and therefore the impression that offering a low price would result in hurt feelings. As soon as I would walk out of the stand, the warm fuzzy feeling would disappear when I noticed that my wallet was empty. Other times I was frequently beat into blind submission, via aggressive yelling and “shock-and-awe” tactics. When I nervously piped up in response, it would trigger another storm of yelling and fits. Temper tantrums, as I found out, do a great job of stressing you out, forcing you to make a rash decision.
It’s a known fact among any seasoned general (or bargain-er), that a retreat sometimes has tactical advantages. Often times, throwing your hands up and walking away is symbolic that this is your lowest price. If you do so, often times the opposing force will let relent. If not, you have gained some valuable information: your stated price is too low. Keep calm and move on to the next stall.
At first, it would seem that one must be “born to bargain”: only the hawkish, with a blood thirsty eye for weakness can accomplish such a monumental task: getting a small, aggressive woman to budge. What most people don’t realize is that behind the aggression and fervor of “sealing the deal” is the simple concept that two people are coming to an agreement on a price. One wants to maximize, the other wants to minimize. It is, by all means, not only a soluble, but a relatively simple problem as long as the buyer knows a few basic rules. In other words, while bargaining is an art that demands steadfastness and insane intestinal fortitude, it can be learned.
The following is an example of a successful BARGAINING scene in the Beijing Silk Market:
Vendor: Hey, handsome boy, (beautiful girl), come, come, look over here!
Shuàigē (měinǚ), jìnlái kàn kàn (guòlái kàn kàn)!
Customer: How much is this bag?
Zhège bāo duōshǎo qián?
Walk-away Part I
Vendor: Don’t go, I can make it cheaper, OK? How about 550?
Bié zǒu a, wǒ kěyǐ piányi yīxiē,550 zěnme yàng?
Customer: Hesitates briefly and then continues to walk away.
Walk-away Part II
Vendor: How much do you want to pay?
Nǐ duōshǎo qián mǎi a?(Nǐ gěi duōshǎo qián?)
Vendor: US dollars?
Customer: Chinese RMB.
Vendor: Are you kidding me?
JOKE,JOKE. Kāi wánxiào.
Walk-away Part II
Vendor: Come on.come on,you really want to buy it? How much do you want to pay?
Huílái huílái, nǐ chéngxīn yào bù? Dàodǐ nǐ néng gěi duōshǎo qián?
Customer: 80. If you won’t sell it at this price, I will leave right now.
80. Nǐ bù mài wǒ jiù zǒu.
80 gěi nǐ yīgè ba.
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