How to bargain (properly) in China

Bargaining is a must in China, a crucial need if you are a foreigner, and a question of dignity if you behave or dress like it.

As a cultural practice, bargaining can be as usual as rejecting the first price given for a bottle of water on a xiăomàibù, to sit down for an hour to get the right price on that Gucci purse you desperately want. Speaking Mandarin is an enormous tactical advantage, but even if you speak no Mandarin at all, you can get great deals, on the condition you follow this handy guide about how to bargain in China.

Basic tips

  • Bargain ruthlessly: bargaining is a cultural use, a game, and you have to win, or at least, lose less than they expect.
  • Take into account that most of the prices are inflated because the sellers really expect some bargain over them.
  • Conditioning the above mentioned, be tough but respectful: never lose your temper, nor take the game of bargaining too seriously.
  • No seller is a friend of yours, nor he/she thinks you are charming, handsome or else. They might act like you are super special, but that is just pure tactics. Which leads me to the next point:
  • Being a foreigner means you have a big L in your forehead, and you deserve to be ripped under their point of view. It is nothing personal; it is a Confucianism thing.
  • NEVER accept a price below at least the 50% of the first price given!
  • Gesture like an Italian. I mean, be expressive. Very expressive. Put some drama in your negotiation. I read a post recommending not to show any expression when it comes to bargain, but  sometimes the seller may fear your drama will draw too much attention, so he will try to calm you down lowering their prices.
  • You are not ripping anybody, no matter what they say: if they are not making money, they will stop bargaining on the spot. Ignore the drama they put up. Have no pity!
  • Have time. Depending on where and what are you shopping you’ll need enough time  to fret the seller slowly. Think it as a trenches war!
  • That something is cheap it does not mean it has the right price (it can be way lower!): I got a discount from 300 to 20 RMB on a beautiful watch.
  • If you can, do a previous research, look for similar items in similar stores to know a starting price.
  • If you have time, do some light bargain anywhere you see the thing you want before actually buying it, so you’ll 1) know what’s the lowest price in all of them; and 2) you can use the other offers as a bargaining chip.
Spices table

Choices, choices…

Sometimes it can be confusing where and in what circumstances you can or have to bargain, so:

You have to bargain at:

  • Wet markets, open-air markets and such;
  • Copy markets and related places;
  • Street markets of any kind (from food to electronics);
  • Whenever there’s no price tag or there is a price per Kg (as the picture above).

You cannot bargain in China at:

  • Wal-Mart, Carrefour and similar superstores;
  • You went to your nearest xiăomàibù to buy a single bottle of tea (unless they are trying to rip you off);
  • Modern or foreign shops, including but not limited to Nike, Apple, Li Ning, Starbucks or Paodora. Please don’t. I’ve seen too many embarrassing scenes. Funny, but embarrassing.
  • Places where they have fixed prices or there is a price tag on them (depends on circumstances)
  • Also, well, when your common sense tells you not to!

In between this two levels, if you are not sure, just try to scream say “tie gway luh!” (Tài guì le; 太贵了: too expensive), and see if they offer a lower price or ask you what would be your price for it. If they do, it is open season for bargaining!

Now you got the basics, let’s go to the dance:

Bargaining

It is not as dramatic or complicated as I read somewhere, but rather simple once you have got the rhythm:

  1. So the starting point is a big smile on the seller’s face. Also, a price. A high one. You will never accept that first price, and if you have or can get your hands on a calculator at this point, or pen and paper, it would come in handy. If not, knowing the Chinese number gestures would be great.
  2. Usually, I have a laugh at their first price, as if it was a “welcome joke”, often making them give me a slightly better price immediately afterwards. In any case, it still is an awful price.
  3. Take the price given and divide it by 4 (if you have the calculator, you can show them your math to let them know you know how pumped are the prices). As said, never accept a price at least below the half of the first price given. Also, from there, get to an acceptable middle point for both of you. If negotiation spikes, you can take the second price given and divide it by 3.
  4. Keep going until negotiation stalls or your price is accepted. In between, to drag the seller to your price, do the following:
  • Point out flaws of the product you are about to buy;
  • Pretend to walk away (when negotiations come to a dead-end);
  • Do not dress like a tourist, pretend you’ve lived there for a while;
  • Use other offers from other shops (even real or faked) as a blackmailing: “They gave me half of your price for the same thing over there!” and so on.
  • A favorite of mine: “Oh, I am sorry, but I am only carrying ‘X’ RMB!“. This is useful, but use it as a last push for the price you wanted.

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6 comments

  1. Typically I’m hideous at bargaining. I find it all rather embarrassing. I generally chicken-out and make sure I have a friend along who likes to bargain. BUT armed with your tips, I may give it another go.

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  2. I bargain like a drama queen. I look at the seller with my most doe-eyed sad face (think Puss in Boots) and say, “this is the only money I have” and dramatically open my wallet to show the least amount of Rmb (the rest are of course in hidden in my bag pocket). Two things happen: they look at you and get sucked in your touristy dilemma and give you the item. Or… they poke through the open wallet and say, what about this? and you say…”oh these are our peso coins worth (name a higher value)… and they say, okay that will do as well. So you happily leave them your coins for souvenir and walk away with your find.

    You forgot to warn, however, of the most ferocious sellers, and I met two of the vicious kinds. One shouted at me,”Stupid stupid foreigner, why you no buy, Stupid, go away!” at the top of her voice when I haggled after some time AND ended up not buying but walking away. They don’t like it and you won’t relish the echoing sound of ‘stupid’ following you across the aisle, either.

    The second one is like a Charlie Chaplin skit. She is so charming and persuasive you end up buying an imitation LV scarf, just because she has been hanging on to your arm trying to drag you back at her store, even when you are halfway out of the mall already. Short of being embarrassed at the tug of war that looks like you have been accosted for pickpocketing, you relent and give her Rmb100 (from the original 300 haggled between you). She releases you from the death grip and you walk away with a throbbing arm and a colorful scarf over your neck. You like it, anyway. 😀

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    1. Hahaha that was great! I did the wallet trick myself, but for showing it’s empty and I don’t have more money, so they stick to the price I gave them… but damn! I never encountered the ‘vicious seller’, but I’m sure in China there’s plenty of them…!
      Thanks for passing by, love your pics! :3

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  3. Hehe, love your anecdotes about life in China as well. But according to you, you left it for a life in the 13th Most Dangerous City in the World? Deym, you live more on the edge than I do. Take good care and keep blogging okay? Drop by my city one day, it’s quite peaceful here when you bargain at cheap stalls. 😀

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    1. Sure thing! 🙂 I will do… this year I’m planning on going back to China, and from there see if the shops at your city can handle my swing 😀

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