I was never very good at bargaining.Every time girlfriends asked what I paid for a new jacket, which always happens here, I’d lie, offering up a third of what I actually paid. They’d still tell me, with an obnoxious sniff, that I was pranked. This smarts.
Here I am, I’ve grown up in the heart of the world’s largest producer of goods, the world’s cheapest producer of goods, the home of Wenzhou shoes, Zhuji pearls and Dongguan electronics. I’m Chinese, and, better yet, a woman—I should be a born bargainer! It’s not just a survival skill here in China; it’s a passport to the land of respect.
My humiliation lasted until I met Zhang Ayi, a friend my mother brought traveling in Zhejiang Province. She’s worldly, she radiates with a typical Beijinger’s merry nature, and she’s a born bargainer. Zhang Ayi can walk into any tourist market, anywhere in the world, and always emerges with amazing local crafts and an almost-unscathed wallet. In Zhejiang, her bargaining skills impressed me even more than the misty, willow-flanked Xihu Lake. She used observation, performance, drama, and guts to cut prices. She embarked on long, arduous battles that put patience and energy to the test. Over the next two weeks of holiday, she became my mentor. She taught me everything she knew.
Mastering the art takes time and practice. But now I find myself an expert shopper isn’t always an expert bargainer. Learn the tricks of the trade from Zhang Ayi, a woman who’s a legend at both.
Haggling over the price of everything: vegetables at the market, rides in a sanlunche (three-wheel vehicle), DVDs from Sanlitun. I even found myself trying to get a few kuai off my latte at Starbucks last week. (I was horrified when I realized what I was doing.)
One concern some foreign friends have voiced is that the money means so much more to them, much more than it does to me. Granted, this might be true. But remember that the price they’re offering is bloated, it’s meant to be cut, and they’re still going to get a great deal from this sale, even with what fat you do manage to slice off.
First, take advantage of the superstitions of Chinese shop owners, by showing up early in the morning. It’s best if you can be the first customer of the day. Vendors consider an early sale to be extremely auspicious, and expect it to set the entire day’s business off on a smooth track. They’ll usually sacrifice more on prices for their very first customer, so make sure that customer is you.
Alternately, if you can’t make it so early, show up about an hour before the shop’s closing time. (For tourist bargain malls, that’s often around eight or nine in the evening.) When vendors are finishing the day’s work, and don’t expect any more deals, they’re again far more willing to knock down the prices.
That’s all the prep knowledge you really need. Once you’re in the stall, that’s when the techniques and scripts start to matter. First, remember never to show you’re interested. For such a widely-known rule, this is always the first to be forgotten.
Remember to act the part of a disinterested browser. Casually saunter up, keeping it slow and directionless, and indifferently ask for the price. Maybe even through in a slight criticism.
Buyer: Hrm, that’s a funny-looking scarf. How much is it?
Zhè tiáo wéijīn kàn qǐlái hái háng。 Duōshǎo qián ā？
Whatever price they give, play the role of the shocked customer, and up the drama. Really twist your face up at the price.
Buyer: That expensive? That doesn’t make sense at all.
Zhème guì？Tài lípǔ le!
Vendor: Seriously, I’m already giving you a discount. In most cases I tell people 1000. I’ll be totally frank with you: the lowest price I can take is 700. How about that?
Wǒ yǐjīng ràng zhe nǐ le， gēn biérén wǒ dōu shuō 1000 ne。 Zhèyàng ba， wǒ gěinǐ gè shíjià， qībǎi nǐ náqù ba。
Buyer: It is still way too expensive.
Qībǎi háishì tàiguìle.
Now they’ll ask you, as if it’s been scripted out (which it has), how much you’re willing to pay.
Vendor: So how much you want to pay for it?
Nà nǐ yuànyì chū duōshǎo qián？
Don’t reply. Ignore them, as you keep looking around, murmuring to yourself or your friend that the shopkeeper is far too greedy for a sincere, honest customer like yourself.
Buyer: You are not being very sincere.
Lǎobǎn，nǐ zhègerén zhēn bù shízai。
Buyer: What a rip-off.
Nǐ yě tài bù gōngdào le。
This is a game, and you’re going to have to be bold at this point. Walk to the door, as they continue to ask what your best price is. Don’t be shy. Offer a sixth of the asking price. If you’re clearly a foreigner, that’s probably the actual cost.
Vendor: Do you really want this one? If you do, what’s an acceptable price?
Nǐ chéngxīn xiǎng mǎi ma？ chéngxīn xiǎng mǎi de huà jiù gěi gè jià ba。
Buyer: I’d rather not. Why waste your time offering a price we can’t possibly agree on?
Búyòng le， wǒ shuōle nǐ yě búhuì dāyìng de。
Vendor: It doesn’t matter, just go ahead.
Méi guānxi，nǐ shuō ba.
Buyer: It’s only worth 100 kuai to me.
Wǒ kàn tā yě jiù zhí yìbǎi kuài.
Some shop owners will accuse you, at this point, of not being sincere and honest. They’ll insist the quality is unrivaled, that it was imported directly from the remote grasslands of Sichuan, that the economic downturn is hard on their family, that they need to eat.
Vendor: You must be kidding me. This is such a well-made product. You won’t find something like it anywhere else.
Kāi shénme wánxiào？ Nǐ kànkan zhè zhìliàng，bié jiā de dōngxi méifǎ bǐ。
I brought it all the way from Sichuan.
Wǒ dà lǎo yuǎn cóng sìchuān jìn de huò.
Look, it’s not easy for me to make a living nowadays.
Xiànzài zuò shēngyi bù róngyì。
All of these may sound like refusals, but they’re all complete confirmations that your offer was reasonable. Stand firm. Be warned that this stage of the bargaining process, where the price will inch down its way, may last a while.
Buyer: My friend bought exactly the same thing, for this price.
Wǒ de péngyou yě mǎile yíyàng de dōngxi， jiù huāle zhème duō qián。
Anyway, I don’t think the color is quite right.
Zàishuō，tā de yánsè bú tài zhèng。
If your offer wasn’t reasonable, the reaction will probably be silence, accompanied by a cold stare and a hand pointing towards the door. You will get some of these, and they’ll come off as both offended and offensive, but don’t take them personally—it’s just another part of the play. If you receive this reaction, ask for the lowest price he is willing to offer. At this point, usually it will be a more reasonable price.
If the bargaining battle reaches an impasse, and the vendor offers no white flag of surrender, it’s time to slowly wander to the exit, shaking your head woefully.
Buyer: I’m not in desperate need of scarf, anyway. I’ll check out what some of the other shops have to offer.
Wǒ yě bù zháojí yào. Háishì qù biéjiā kànkan ba。
If all goes according to script, just as you’re stepping beyond hearing distance, the shop owner will yell out to you.
Vendor: Alright, alright! Add an extra five kuai, and it’s yours.
Hǎoba hǎoba， zài jiā wǔkuài jiù gěinǐ!
Don’t surrender! Don’t give up! You’re only one step from triumph. Take another step away from the shop, with your ears perked up. Listen intently, as you win the prize.
Vendor: Okay already, come back and take it. It’s yours.
Hǎoba， jiāoqián ba! Gěinǐ dài yíjiàn。
As he’s closing the deal, the vendor will complain, pathetically, that you’re robbing not only him, but his family as well. He’s doing this for no other reason than he sincerely wants to make friends with you. Don’t feel bad—he’s acting his role, perfectly. You need to act yours, just as well, by acting contrite.
Vendor: You are so good at bargaining. If all my customers were as good as you, I’d go bankrupt.
Nǐ tài néng jiǎngjià le， yàoshì dōu xiàng nǐ zhèyàng， wǒmen jiùyào guānmén le。
Just don’t tell anyone that you bought it from me for such a low price.
Qiānwàn bié gēn biérén shuō nǐ zhème piányi mǎilái de。
I’m only selling it this cheap so that we can be friends, and you’ll come back and buy more.
Wǒ zhème piányi mài gěi nǐ， wánquán shì wèile gēn nǐ jiāogè péngyou lāgè huítóukè。
If the deal somehow fails, don’t worry too much. Unless it truly is a one-of-a-kind (and, even though it may appear to be, it most often won’t be), you’ll find the exact same thing for sale a few shops away.
This is just another chance to practice the craft. And if succeeding efforts also fail, maybe, just maybe, consider lifting your opening price to one fifth of the asking.
Don’t forget, this is all a game, and you have to play by the rules. Learn the lingo, and practice as much as you can. These are the rules Zhang Ayi taught me. She continues to call me, to check in on my bargaining skills, and to berate me for prices paid on recent purchases.
But there’s one more, which I’m going to teach you myself, and which might just be the most important rule of bargaining. I’m sure even Zhang Ayi practices this, on a daily basis. When your friends ask you how much you paid for something, look them in the eye, don’t blink, and tell them half the price you actually paid. It’s all a part of the script.