« China AheadForbidden! »
12.04.2002

On Haggling

The Art of the Deal

What I learned on my Chinese vacation: if you are very shy, you will suffer torments trying to buy things. There is no such thing as being inconspicuous - you are a walking giant wallet.

I have always been a terrible shy shopper, easily spooked by salespeople and terrified at the idea of being helped, so don't think I don't sympathize. But I was lucky in my company - and I want to share what I learned these past three weeks at the feet of Mr. Baker, haggling master, who never pays full price:

First, the language. To bargain in China, you must forget any Mandarin Chinese you may have and become Ugly American, who saves much money, and is impervious to rational argument by dint of total incomprehension. The most important phrase for you to learn before visiting a Chinese market is the English word "Hello!", shouted loudly in the imperative mood. "Hello!" is Chinese for I speak no English, but boy have I got a deal for you. Alternatively, you may also hear the phrase "Rolex!", which means I would like to sell you this expensive North Korean watch.

A proper response to "Hello!" and "Rolex!" is to say "bu yao!", which means I don't want it.

An improper response is to hold out a fistful of twenties and say "Dollars OK?".

Other useful phrases include "Looka looka!" and "Cheapa cheapa!", both of which are semantically related to "Hello!".

Depending on where you are ( a market stall, or a bona-fide little store ), you may or may not see items marked with an actual price. The prices will be marked and non-negotiable if you go to a department store or other Western-style retail outfit. Prices at food stalls, marked or not, are also final ( because it's too depressing to bargain down a pork skewer from seven cents to three ). In all other cases, you should consider the price tag to be a decorative element.

A marked price on an item allows the merchant to calculate for you a special discount, which you should also ignore, but which will occupy valuable seconds that you can use to actually look at the thing.

To begin the haggle dance, point to something you might care to buy and say "Duo shao qian?" ( How much is it? ). The merchant will give you a price in Chinese ( perhaps a decreasing series of them, Home Shopping Club style, if they like to impress with discounts ), and then type it out on a calculator. When they do this, you must immediately respond with a shocked laugh.

There are several schools of thought on the topic - I have grown to like a little worldly guffaw, with a certain bobbing of the head to indicate deep fiscal amusement. The better half has had great success with a kind of shocked gasp, followed by a loud "ha ha ha" and vigorous head shaking. Whatever your approach, it helps to have a second person nearby to relay the price to once your own incredulous laughter fades a bit - they can repeat the exercise afresh, magnifying the effect.

Now you make a counter offer. You do not want to make it too high, lest you deprive the merchant of the chance to laugh incredulously in turn, but you also don't want to get thrown out on your ear. You should pick a price low enough to feel vaguely ashamed of yourself, and then offer half of that - between ten and thirty percent of the merchant's first bid. If there is vigorous head shaking accompanied by rapid Chinese, you are probably doing well. If the merchant recoils in mock horror and yells your offer to others, so that they can reel in turn, you are doing very well indeed.

With the initial salvos fired, you must now examine the item and note its many defects to the merchant. Be sure to finger fabric, peer at hems, sniff tea blossoms, inspect the innards of your teapot, and in general look mildly disgusted with your impetuous decision to even consider purchasing something so shoddy. Call over friends and huddle cabalistically about the item, muttering in English. Point at it. Up the price a little. If you can, offer to buy two or more of the item, at a cut rate. Bid, laugh, and iterate until you get within a few yuan of the price you are actually willing to pay.

At some point you will arrive at the merchant's last, rock-bottom price, below which they can sink no further. This will be clearly explained to you with much exasperated gesturing, and a surprising amount of English ( "I lose money! Last price!" ). This is haggling crunch time for you - you have to shake your head, give a sad smile and walk away.

If you have done everything right, the merchant will call you back after you have gone a few steps - the more steps, the better the deal - and with much disgust the item will be given you at your last bid offer. At which point you must pay and run, because the merchant will immediately try to sell you something else.

You did it! You haggled and won! There is nothing like it in the world.

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